(Original post at http://mangelorange.wordpress.com/201...)
One of the things I love best about Los Angeles is the presence of tiny pockets of amazing food in unlikely places. Mercado La Paloma, in an unlovely part of South LA on 37th and Grand, for example, hosts Chichén Itzá, Mo-Chica, a more-than-passable Persian counter and a Oaxacan sandwich joint with a surprisingly good horchata con tuna (fruit, not fish).
Another such nexus of great food is the gritty, worn corner of Sherman Way and Bellaire Avenue in North Hollywood: the northeast corner hides Blackjack Market behind a worse-than-average Carl’s Jr., where you can buy some of the best chorny khleb (Russian-style spongy “black” rye bread) in the city, along with European butter at some of the best prices in the Valley. The southwest corner hosts Swan Thai, the first (as you travel off the freeway) in the line of excellent Thai restaurants as you head west from the freeway, and Las Quenas Peruvian Restaurant, home of an octopus ceviche and leche quemada that still pull me to this gritty intersection three years after having sold my house nearby.
The northwest corner hosts an El Super supermarket (not nearly as good as Vallarta), Las Américas Bakery (decent bolillos) and the La Fiesta Super Mall, a random hodgepodge of stalls selling all manner of cheap schlock, from individually plastic-wrapped tennis shoes to itchy wool zarapes. When I moved away from the Valley in 2007, the depressing food court in the back of La Fiesta Super Mall contained an unspeakably poor Chinese takeout stand featuring cornstarch-and-sugar-sauced protein and sad job-lot vegetables, a Japanese teriyaki stand that was the only such place I’ve ever seen that could make me yearn for Yoshinoya, a thoroughly mediocre Mexican rice-and-beans combo-plate place where the industrial cheese melted over everything, and two closed stalls. Ten or twelve rickety old aluminium tables stood guard between the food and the merchandise, from the Korean electronics store to the tattoo parlour.
This image, then, was in my head when I cocked my eyebrows in astonishment at Bill of Street Gourmet LA (http://streetgourmetla.blogspot.com) last night when he suggested we go there for dinner. I frankly thought he’d taken leave of his culinary senses, but I should have known better; he does not eat mediocre food. We met up with Brian of @EATours (http://www.twitter.com/eatours) for one of the most surprising dinners I’ve had in a long time.
Gone are the mediocre stalls of yesteryear. The old mediocre Mexican combo-plate place has turned into a small outpost of Metro Balderas (you know, of the weekend carnitas of Jonathan Goldian bliss); the Japanese place has morphed into a burger place. One of the closed stalls has now turned into La Perla del Pacífico, a restaurant specialising in the food of the Pacific coast of Colombia. Not the antioqueña food of La Maria, this is the food of the lands west of Cali and Medellín.
We started with shakes made of borojó, a South American fruit that (after I looked it up) resembles a green globe with brown continents. I know that’s a bizarre description, but go look on Google Images and you’ll see that I’m not making it up. The flavour is slightly tangy, like a mix of mangosteen and banana. It is supposedly an aphrodisiac; if so, I’m immune to it. The shake, which had the consistence of a Borojó Julius, was delicious but half the portion would have been sufficient.
With the shakes we ordered Pacific-style Colombian ceviche de camarones. The broth was very tomatoey with a great deal of frenched red onion and small bay shrimp. The shrimp were well-cooked (they were cooked with heat before being marinated) but the dressing was not piquant enough and overwhelmingly like having shrimp in a glass of Clamato with some onions. It wasn’t bad—far from it—but I found myself longing for the ceviche de pulpo across the street, with lime juice and ají blended into a leche de tigre that hits like caffeine.
A plate of patacones (think tostones) with hogao showed up. I’m a sucker for the texture of these flat disks of plantain: crispy around the edges, chewy in the middle. A little hit of salt and they’d be perfect. As it was, the hogao (a long-simmered mixture of onions, peppers, cumin, tomatoes and garlic that Bill rightly called “the sofrito of Colombia”) made them go down very, very easily.
Empanadas de carne were surprising. I was expecting something along the lines of the Argentine dish (practically the national dish) of beef mince in a wheat-flour wrap, deep-fried. These empanadas were corn masa-based, but coarse, with long-stewed, slightly stringy beef cooked inside. The shell was slightly tough to crack open (think of a deep-fried sope that wraps around things), but in the mouth they weren’t tough at all; they crumbled into an intensely corn-y front flavor that complemented stewed beef well.
Encocao de piangua, or ark clams in coconut sauce, was not the most attractive-looking dish but the taste was excellent; tender clams that tasted like mussels, cooked in a thick coconut sauce that had a heavy hit of citrus and quite a bit of garlic in it, served with rice, salad and a couple more patacones.
Sancocho de pescado was the biggest hit of the evening, a coconutty soup that reminded me of a very, very mild yellow Thai curry. Big pieces of perfectly fresh, moist, plump whitefish (black cod?) along with potatoes, yuca, plantains and a thin coconutty sauce with tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic. Add dendê oil and you’ve got the northeast Brazilian dish moqueca baiana, as Brian pointed out. It comes with rice, avocado, limes and salad, which you can use to doctor the dish to your own desires.
These folks can cook, and they can cook well. The food was mostly outstanding and a nice change from Mexican, Mexican, Salvadorean, Mexican, Mexican. It’s worth mentioning that according to the proprietor, Valentine’s Day there will be several dishes for $1. Head in there and see what they have on offer; even if it’s small plates, as Brian pointed out, they’re a dollar each, how could you possibly go wrong?
As we were sitting waiting for the food to arrive, I noticed that the Chinese food place had the original neon sign advertising Chinese food, paper banners advertising Thai food, and a small carved decoration on the wall spelling out “Lao”. Intrigued, I walked over and looked over the laminated menus: pad Thai, beef broccoli, fried rice. Blech. I was about to give it up as a bad job when a sign above caught my eye: “Bamboo Shoot Salad”.
There’s only one place in Los Angeles that makes bamboo shoot salad. Could it be? What else is up there?
Papaya salad with salted, raw blue crab. Nam kao tod. Sour sausage. Nem on sticks. Shrimp balls on sticks. This all looks VERY familiar. Lexan containers of dried shrimp, of roasted peanuts, of brown palm sugar.
Sweet mother of mercy, I’ve found Song Fung Kong!
Those of you who remember the weekend food stalls at Wat Thai L.A. on Coldwater Canyon and Roscoe will remember that there were dueling papaya salad stalls next to each other, essentially dead centre along the north line of booths. One sold only papaya salad; it fetched up in a booth in New King Seafood right next door to La Fiesta, closer to Coldwater Canyon. The other one always had two lines, one for grilled meats on sticks and one for papaya salad and bamboo shoot salad. The lines were epic and the rules were well-known: you could order meat sticks from the papaya salad line, but not vice versa. The papaya salad was superior at the double-line place, which is why it had longer lines.
This latter, Song Fung Kong (named after a very popular Laotian song), is the booth now in the back of La Fiesta Super Mall, next to La Perla del Pacífico. I talked to the proprietress and she confirmed that she was the boothholder at the Wat. It’s amazing to me that right in a row you have unbelievable papaya salad, the only Pacific Coast Colombian food in the United States and the carnitas of Metro Balderas. A far, far cry from crappy cornstarchy glop and melted cheese. I was, of course, giddy with excitement; my favourite papaya salad in the country has come home to roost!
I owe a great debt of gratitude to Bill for getting me into the place to find it. Go and try all of these places; the atmosphere is ghetto but the food is real.
Bear in mind that the mall closes at 8:00 p.m. If you are still eating at that time, you can exit the west doors and walk around the building when you’re done, but service stops at 8:00 p.m.
La Fiesta Super Mall
12727 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605
Bill’s review from 2008 of La Perla del Pacífico: http://streetgourmetla.blogspot.com/2...
La Perla Del Pacifico
12727 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, CA 91605