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Bon Appétit: Fall 2021 Southern California restaurant reviews

A menu staple at Porch and Swing is a bowl of heirloom tomatoes with white barbecue sauce, pickled jalapeños, and corn bread crumbs. | Photo by Julee Ho Media A menu staple at Porch and Swing is a bowl of heirloom tomatoes with white barbecue sauce, pickled jalapeños, and corn bread crumbs. | Photo by Julee Ho Media

Los Angeles & environs

Other locales: The Valleys | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

Mikaza, Downtown Los Angeles

Review by Colleen Dunn Bates

Mikaza's saltado, a Peruvian-Chinese stir-fry with french fries and rice. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

Mikaza's saltado, a Peruvian-Chinese stir-fry with french fries and rice. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

Since the renovation of DTLA’s baroque Spring Arcade building in 2014, a number of food businesses have set up shop under the grand glass ceiling, which has been a Broadway mainstay since 1924. Some tenants, like the fine taqueria Guisado’s, have become fixtures, while others did not survive the pandemic restrictions.

The latest addition is Mikaza, a Peruvian-Japanese restaurant from Danny Rodriguez, the Peru native behind Burbank’s successful Pablito’s Tacos. To add to the international zeitgeist, Rodriguez hired Argentinean chef Miguel Torres and pioneering sushi chef Elizabeth Valencia, a native of Puebla, Mexico, who’s had to prove herself as a Latina working in L.A.’s sushi world. Rodriguez also created a first-rate cocktail program.

A perfect example of Peruvian-Japanese cooking is the tiradito, which is basically sashimi with Peruvian-style sauces. To start, consider sharing the tiradito de albacore, with a yuzu ponzu sauce and crispy onions, or the sweeter tiradito de pasión, salmon with a passion fruit sauce and crispy sweet potato. Try the sampler of three ceviches, including the superb yellow ají (mackerel with yellow chile sauce and glazed sweet potato), served with addictive Peruvian corn nuts.

The sushi rolls we tried were fine but nothing special; avoid the veggie dragon if you don’t like sweet, but splurge on the Amazonian if you like a tempura crunch in your rolls.

To my taste and for my dollar, the saltados (Peruvian-Chinese stir-fries with french fries and rice) and “woks” (hearty rice-based stir-fries with vegetables and shrimp, salmon, or steak) are the way to go. Just don’t fill up too much on rice—you want to save room for the exceptional cheesecake.

The shortcoming as of this writing is the service, but my visits took place in the early days of post-COVID reopening, when staff was hard to come by. They didn’t seem to know the menu, food emerged haphazardly, and tables were too often neglected. And the live music on the arcade patio, while excellent, can be way too loud, so reserve an indoor table if you want to talk to your companions.

The management seems professional, though, so these issues might well be solved by the time you read this. 

Best dishes: Ceviche sampler, Amazonian roll, tiradito de pasión, Mikaza saltado, lomo saltado, shrimp or vegetarian wok, cheesecake.

Info: Dinner prices: Smaller plates, $5–$14; larger plates, $15–$32; desserts, $13–$14. 

The Valleys

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

Saso, Pasadena

Review by Jean T. Barrett

Saso's filet of Ōra King salmon from New Zealand. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

Saso's filet of Ōra King salmon from New Zealand. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

Saso occupies the pretty, 100-seat space on the east side of the Pasadena Playhouse complex, providing a welcome fine-dining venue for theatergoers as well as anyone who appreciates top-class food. Chef-owner Dominique “Dom” Crisp serves what he calls “coastal cuisine,” with a nod to his upbringing on his family’s vineyard in rural Oregon, where he learned to grill seafood and local specialties.

Start with the extensive list of pintxos. Spanish charcuterie, cheeses, and a house-made tomato jam star in a platter called La Española, a shareable feast for two or three diners. From the crudo bar, don’t miss the txuletta tartarra (txuleton is Basque for a rib cut of beef), a terrific version of steak tartare featuring hand-chopped Wagyu beef topped with salmon roe and edible blossoms, or the tempting oysters on the half shell.

The Australian Angus strip steak is cooked to order and paired with hot fries, for a classic steak frites. A filet of Ōra King salmon from New Zealand is complemented by a salad of citrus segments, sliced radishes, microgreens, and char-grilled avocado. To end the meal, there’s house-churned ice cream or a mini Basque cheesecake is hard to resist.

Best dishes: Txuletta tartarra (Wagyu beef tartare), La Española charcuterie platter, seared Ora King salmon, goi solomoa (Australian Angus strip steak with fries), mini Basque cheesecake.

Info: Dinner prices: Entrées, $25–$120; desserts, $4–$10. 

Central Coast

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

La Paloma Café, Santa Barbara

Review by Nancy Ransohoff

La Paloma's Santa Maria tri-tip. | Photo by Chuck Place

La Paloma's Santa Maria tri-tip. | Photo by Chuck Place

It’s a tall order to reimagine a beloved restaurant that’s long been a part of local lore. With La Paloma Café, the capable Acme Hospitality group has done just that, breathing new life into the historic property while respecting its roots. The original La Paloma Café, led by the Luera family, occupied the same building from 1940 until 1983, when it became Paradise Café, which closed in 2020.

The menu pays tribute to the cuisine of the early California settlers, fusing Spanish and Mexican influences and updating them with creative twists. Executive Chef Jeremy Tummel, who is of Chumash ancestry, has a 20-year culinary background, with his most recent stint coming at Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito.

Settle into a seat on the two-level outdoor patio or inside the warm, casual dining room with oak floors and whitewashed brick walls. The separate bar oozes an old-school vibe, with its restored historic mural and cowhide-upholstered bar stools.

You might start off with a hibiscus margarita or a house cocktail like the La Paloma, featuring Aperal, Champagne simple syrup, lime, and grapefruit. For appetizers, try the Santa Barbara Seafood Special (a fresh local ceviche or crudo that changes daily) or the flavor-packed JT’s Salad with baby arugula, dehydrated olive, charred corn, garlic tostada, and Cotija cheese.

Dinner plates such as the pork shoulder carnitas and the Santa Barbara Mission Chicken with lemon peel, rosemary, apple–pink peppercorn sauce, and rotisserie potatoes are superb. Tummel knows his way around an oak grill, and it shows in the perfectly executed Santa Maria tri-tip that’s plated with ranchero salsa, creamy horseradish, and barbecued pinquito beans. Satisfying sides include a golden hominy and cheese casserole with roasted green chiles and a corn tortilla crunch.

Cap it all off with the Mexican salted chocolate tart with dulce de leche, raspberry sauce, and a bit of a kick in the crust. 

Best dishes: Santa Maria tri-tip, Santa Barbara Mission Chicken, pork shoulder carnitas, hominy and cheese casserole, Mexican salted chocolate tart.

Info: Dinner prices: Starters, $12–$14; entrées, $21–$30; desserts, $8–$11. (805) 966-7029.

Inland Empire & the Desert

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Central Coast | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

Coco Palm, Pomona

Review by Roger Grody

Coco Palm's paella. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Coco Palm's paella. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Cuban cuisine has broad appeal, perhaps because its origins—a splash of Spain and a pinch of Africa shaken into a tropical Caribbean cocktail—are as diverse as Southern California. Unlike the mom-and-pop storefronts often associated with Cuban eateries, Coco Palm is a big, flashy restaurant perched on a hill.

Overlooking the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10) near Fairplex, Coco Palm is popular for large-scale events, and its plentiful outdoor seating also attracts cautious customers easing back into the dining scene.

The interior, past an entryway koi pond and waterfall, is divided into multiple rooms with linen-clad tables and modern art. But the past 18 months have made

restaurant-goers appreciate the pleasure of dining alfresco, and Coco Palm accommodates that on terraces bordered by decorative balusters.  And the views of freeway gridlock can be oddly mesmerizing.

Starters include deep-fried, creamy ham or chicken croquetas served with a citrusy, garlicky mojo. Ceviche-inspired ‘ahi crudo—chunks of quality tuna tossed with avocado, jalapeño, and jicama—and lobster quesadilla might raise the eyebrows of purists, but there is no pretense of strict authenticity here.

Ropa vieja, a braised and pleasantly stringy beef dish served with addictive black beans redolent of garlic and cumin, is a classic Cuban specialty, while generously plated saffron-scented arroz con pollo is garnished with pickled red onions. Paellas—the seafood version is piled with lobster, clams, mussels, crab, and more—reflect a strong Spanish influence, albeit accompanied by sweet plantains.

Demonstrating the kitchen’s creativity is a Chilean sea bass filet served over mashed yuca in a nuanced mango-miso glaze, while the award for size goes to a 3-pound tomahawk rib eye that is easily shared. To finish, pass on the traditional pudin de pan (bread pudding) in favor of velvety all-American cheesecake with guava puree for a Caribbean accent. The wine list is limited, but many guests opt for a mojito, the gin cocktail with muddled mint leaves whose Cuban roots aren’t disputed. 

Best dishes: Ham or chicken croquetas, ‘ahi tuna crudo, Chilean sea bass with mango-miso glaze, cheesecake with guava puree.

Info: Dinner prices: Starters, $7–$18; entrées, $20–$60; desserts, $7. (909) 469-1965.

Orange County

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | San Diego & Environs

Porch and Swing, Irvine

Review by Miles Clement

Porch and Swing's pork jowl, braised short rib, and heirloom tomatoes. | Photo by Julee Ho Media

Porch and Swing's pork jowl, braised short rib, and heirloom tomatoes. | Photo by Julee Ho Media

This Southern-leaning restaurant is a case study in hard-won success. Despite launching at the outset of the lockdowns, Porch and Swing still managed to become one of Orange County’s most lauded new dining rooms.

That feat might at first seem improbable. Porch and Swing occupies the bottom corner of an office tower in a palm tree–lined corporate courtyard. The setting is pleasant but sterile, the kind of space that’s barren by dusk. But that same emptiness allows Porch and Swing to take center stage—and the kitchen knows how to handle the spotlight.

The restaurant bills itself as “a taste of Charleston,” and there’s plenty here with which to imagine a Southern vacation. Start with the impeccable skillet corn bread, impossibly light and airy while still retaining some of that signature grit. It’s made even better by a sweet dollop of honey butter.

The menu changes daily, but the heirloom tomatoes are a staple, placed atop a slick of white barbecue sauce and topped with pickled jalapeños and crunchy corn bread crumbs.

Garlic-laced potato gratin is as classic and decadent as it gets. The house salad is seasonal, memorable, and refined: Most recently referred to as the Coast-to-Coast Salad, it showcased ruffled leaves of lettuce, Bosc pear, pickled peaches, toasted pecans, and crispy fried quinoa.

Shrimp recently received a warm-weather makeover with butter beans, charred baby zucchini, and pickled Fresno chiles.

The braised and glazed short rib has, through its various iterations, been one of Porch and Swing’s biggest hits—and deservedly so. But the roasted pork jowl is even better. The pork is encrusted with areas of fatty, crunchy caramelization and is paired with creamy grits and enlivened with a sweet-spicy pepper jam.

By the time dessert is a consideration, there’s really only one proper choice: warm brioche bread pudding served with vanilla semifreddo.

Best dishes: Skillet corn bread, house salad, potato gratin, roasted pork jowl, black tiger shrimp, braised short rib, bread pudding.

Info: Dinner prices: Starters, $11–$21; entrées, $21–$36; desserts, $4–$16. 

San Diego & environs

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County

Vaga, Encinitas

Review by Candice Woo

Vaga's braised lamb shank. | photo by Rob Andrew

Vaga's braised lamb shank. | photo by Rob Andrew

Chef Claudette Zepeda's new restaurant, Vaga, opened this spring at the Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas. Perched on a quiet bluff above the picturesque North County coastline, Vaga joins a strong contingent of San Diego–area hotel restaurants that are destinations unto themselves.

Zepeda first rose to prominence at Little Italy hot spot Bracero Cocina de Raiz. That helped propel her to open her first restaurant, Liberty Station’s El Jardín, where Zepeda’s hyper-regional take on Mexican cuisine earned her a James Beard semifinalist nomination.

While the food at El Jardín reflected Zepeda’s culinary influences from south of the border, her menu at Vaga is an homage to her San Diego hometown. Two standout dishes at Vaga prominently showcase scallops. The callo de hacha features a special variety of sweet and silky Baja sea scallop, accented by diced young coconut, an airy cloud of coconut foam, and a vibrant carrot sauce. The seafood is presented stunningly on pink stoneware from The Wheel, a local potter. The seared sea scallops, on the other hand, are anchored with a smoky and rich puree of roasted plantains, heirloom corn, and a pleasantly spiced macadamia nut chile oil that didn’t overwhelm the delicate seafood.

The vegan dish at Vaga is anything but an afterthought, though it changes seasonally depending on what Zepeda sources from area farms. On one night, it was a medley of wild mushrooms and a confit squash, rendered hearty and complex with the addition of miso and preserved citrus.

For the main course, order the braised lamb shank, which is destined to be a menu constant. The earthy curry melds Mexican and Indian flavors with pasilla chiles, stewed greens, and tender vaquita beans. It’s served with a side of flaky paratha, one of several breads made in-house.

Local botanicals inspired pastry chef Paola Gonzalez to come up with the Flower Child dessert, a panna cotta subtly flavored with chamomile, rose, and lavender, and paired with tiny amaretti cookies, marigold-infused vanilla marshmallows, and kumquat sherbet.

Best dishes: Callo de hacha, seared scallops, braised lamb, Flower Child dessert.

Info: Dinner prices: Shared plates, soups, and salads, $8–$28; entrées, $18–$40. 

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