99 Essential Restaurants 2014

San Fernando Valley

Hayat’s Kitchen

photo by Amy Scattergood

It is an article of faith in Los Angeles food circles that strip malls often house outstanding food — something about the repeating universe of nail shops and parked cars seems to draw great, albeit unlikely, restaurants, as if that much concrete is somehow magnetized. So drive to North Hollywood, miles into the flatlands of the San Fernando Valley, to a mall near the corner of Burbank and Vineland. There, in Hayat’s Kitchen, you will find some of the best Lebanese food in the city. A warning: You’ll order a lot of it, so make sure you have a lot of friends in your car before you head out. Because you’ll need to order the customary meze, the hummus and kibbeh and foul and soujouk, and then you’ll probably also want some of the excellent kebabs, some shawarma and lamb chops — at this point, you’d be wise also to order a Lebanese coffee or a pot of mint tea to keep you from lapsing into a happy food fugue. Because, although your server will likely try and stop you at this point, you cannot forget the potato harra — a dish that is to Middle Eastern cuisine what poutine is to Canadian food, which is to say a plate of french fries inundated with garlic sauce. You may never get out of the parking lot.

-- Amy Scattergood

Lum-Ka-Naad

photo by Danny Liao

In a single meal at Lum-Ka-Naad, you could taste something from every region of Thailand. What you ought to concentrate on, though, is food from the north and the south. Then you would get the expert input of owner Alex Sonbalee, who is from Chiang Mai in the north, and his wife, Ooi, from Krabi in the south. Try Northern kang ho: stir-fried vegetables and meat seasoned with a Thai-Burmese yellow curry powder that’s hand-carried from Thailand by any staff member traveling there. Or spicy, aromatic hin-le pork curry, flavored with a special curry paste made at the restaurant. Moving south, turmeric root enters the cuisine, as in Krabi-spiced chicken from Ooi’s hometown; a spicy papaya and shrimp curry; or baby back ribs, stir-fried with a turmeric-seasoned curry paste. Even rare ingredients turn up fresh here, as Alex collects greens such as cha-om and chaplu from local Thai growers. He also has managed to get fresh young jackfruit for a Northern soup and salad and grows mangoes himself.  The enormous menu ranges through all the popular Thai dishes, from pad Thai to panang, for days when you want comfort rather than adventure.

-- Barbara Hansen

Sushi Iki

photo by Amy Scattergood

If you find yourself with 90 minutes for lunch on a weekday and you’re anywhere even close to Tarzana, you should consider the wisdom of pulling up a chair at Eddie Okamoto’s sushi bar. Why 90 minutes? Because that’s the window Okamoto has given you for lunch at Sushi Iki on the four days a week he serves it, an amount of time dictated by the fact that most days he’s downtown buying fish at 5 a.m., and it takes some time to sort through boxes of Santa Barbara uni and haggle over toro from Tokyo before heading back to the Western San Fernando Valley. Of course you could have dinner here, too, but Okamoto is often in rare form during daylight hours — and it’s better light for Instagramming. Okamoto is a mad fiend for Instagram. The other thing the chef likes to do is qualify his fish not only by country of origin but by ocean depth. Thus the kimme dai (“golden eye! James Bond!”) is from 600 feet, and the hamachi (dab of yuzukoshō) is from 300 feet, as is a sliver of kawahagi folded over a bit of its own liver (“the foie gras of the sea!”) with osetra caviar and shiso leaf, a stunning creation that you may want to Instagram for posterity — although Okamoto has done that for you too.

-- Amy Scattergood