3909 BEVERLY BLVD., LOS ANGELES; (323) 660-2113. MON.--SAT., NOON- 9P. M.
The overeducated misfits who frequent East Hollywood's ethnic restaurants have their well-known favorites: Zankou for chicken; Sanamluang for Thai noodles; Marouch for hummus, grilled quail, and fattouch. For café con leche, there's Tropical; for weissbeer and wurst, the Red Lion. And Agung near downtown has become the one place to go when you want avocado in your coffee.
Agung is a tidy, cinder-block Indonesian restaurant in an untidy neighborhood, a soothing world of spicy curries and continuous soft hits squeezed between a medical building and a lube pit a block or two south of the Hollywood Freeway. It's a tiny, family-run place, decorated with travel posters and batik. The customers seem to be mostly Indonesian students from USC and Indonesian-speaking Dutch guys involved in international trade. They always have avocado in their coffee.
Iced coffee and the creamy fruit go pretty well together, especially when blended with milk and ice into the fluffy consistency of a malted--coffee brings out a sweet richness in the avocado that isn't apparent in guacamole. If Tuscan peasants had stumbled across this combination, es alpukat, people would be lining up outside Melrose coffeehouses to drink the stuff from little cups. Agung is famous for its other beverages too, a Bordeaux-colored drink called es cincau that tastes a little like jellied Robitussin and a rosewater-scented drink called es kelapa mundi that's spiked with gelatinous shreds of baby coconut. Everybody seems to like a sweet, cool drink that's made with coconut, jackfruit, and avocado, which tastes a little like a malted from Mars.
Agung is probably the best place in California to try Padang-style cooking, the fiery, complex cooking of central Sumatra, but you'll find pretty good versionsof the dishes that would be standard eating if Indonesian food were as common as Thai--clumpy fried rice with scallions and ham; delicious fried bakmi noodles with dark soy, shrimp, and plenty of cabbage; the chicken soup soto ayam, thick with fresh vegetables and fragrant with spice. The crisp lettuce salad called gado-gado is dressed with chile-spiked peanut butter and sprinkled with crushed shrimp chips. There's decent satay, sweeter than the Thai kind, skewers of grilled chicken, pork or lamb, and an unusual, Sumatra-style tongue satay served with a pasty Indonesian velouté. The turmeric-stained lamb stew is fine, if a little ordinary.
And the Sumatran dishes shine. Empek-empek may sound like a noise made by a small Sumatran lizard, but is essentially a crusty turnover of house-pounded fish cake stuffed with egg, steamed, and fried. It comes cut into peppery, rubbery chunks, served in a bowl with glass noodles and diced cucumber floating in a soy broth. It's the sort of thing Japanese kaiseki restaurants are always trying to do but never quite get right. Or try lontong, loosely packed rice cakes cooked with mixed meats in a coconut broth, or telur belado, a big tofu patty that's been battered, fried, and doused with sweet, dark soy.
The best way to eat at Agung may be to order several items from the section of the menu called "rice table combination," tapas-size portions of crispy fried chicken in a vivid fresh chile sauce, curried beef, chilied hard-boiled egg, or Sumatra-style curry-roasted beef--served with a big plate of rice--that cost about a buck and a half apiece.
Don't miss the smoky dendeng belado, slices of beef fried until they attain the size, shape and crunchiness of Pringles.
2180 S. WESTWOOD BLVD., LOS ANGELES; (310) 446-1174. MON.--SAT., 11A.M.-11P.M.; SUN., NOON-10P.M.
Consider the falafel, the Middle East's favorite grease bomb, a drippy, screaming-orange postcard from culinary cultures that would really rather be remembered for kebabs, seasoned rice, and sheep's brains garnished with sauteed pine nuts. Most food from Arabic-speaking countries is healthy, sparkling fresh, breathing the vitality of the earth. But a falafel sandwich is an oozing, stinking mess of fried chickpea batter and garlicky sesame goo that may have more calories per ounce than pure hog lard.
Still, as with cheeseburgers and sex, even bad falafel can be pretty good. I grew up craving the industrial-grade falafel from the cafeteria next to the molecular biology building at UCLA, and I still sneak down there once or twice a year for a hit of the sloppy, odiferous stuff. I am no stranger to the oil-soaked pleasures of Falafel King, whose vat of boiling orange grease has been bubbling in itsWestwood window for generations, or to the reasonably austere sandwiches served at Fairfax-area stands like Eat-a-Pita. Falafel usually finds its way onto the table at the Armenian-Lebanese restaurants Marouch, Caroussel, and Carnival. I even have a certain fondness for the hard, Sahara-dry falafel reluctantly served at Zankou Chicken, a dish that I have never seen anybody else actually buy. The best falafel place in Los Angeles County is Golden Dome, a Palestinian-owned restaurant in Bellflower, but lately, I have been going to Aladdin Falafel so often that my truck practically guides itself into the restaurant's tiny parking lot. In contrast to the other falafel stands in town, which are mostly Israeli owned, Aladdin Falafel is run by Palestinian-Americans, and the flavor is subtly different, smokier, tinged with cool. A sign posted in the window announces halal (Islamic kosher) meat, and a framed prayer is mounted high on a wall. The air is perfumed with cumin, garlic, clean oil. Classic Arabic riffage wails from the restaurant's stereo--a small, Tom Schnabel--ish selection of Middle Eastern CDs rests in a spinning case near the cash register--and even the Formica of the main counter is inlaid with blocky Islamic designs.
If you have been to a Middle Eastern restaurant lately, you can probably recite Aladdin's menu by heart: lamb kebab plates, rotisserie chicken, sour grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables. The shwarma is fine, thin, garlicky shavings of extremely well-done meat, flavored with cinnamon and cloves and sliced off a rotating spit; three plump, little grilled lamb chops, slightly grainy, are not precisely what you'd find at a grand restaurant like Campanile, but are a good value for eight bucks. The tabbouleh salad is fresh and tart, with parsley enough to deodorize a dozen people were the dish not so laden with garlic; the baba ghanoush is smooth, fresh, and cool. With every dinner comes a bowl of terrific cumin-laced lentil soup, yellow as a school bus, mellowed with a squirt of citrus.
But you've come for the falafel. It is a small miracle, an oblate Ping-Pong ball of ground chickpeas whose thick, tawny crust gives way to a dense interior, mildly spiced, barely greasy, tinted green with pureed herbs. Without the benefit of tahini, most falafel collapses into dry powder under the teeth; this one is moister, a little more resilient, almost chewy, and you may go through an entire plate of the stuff (it is also available dressed as a sandwich) before realizing you have forgotten to dampen the patties with sauce. On a plate with hummus, peppers, salad, and tart pickled turnips, Aladdin's falafel is a satisfying lunch whether you roll it into a pita or not.
ALAMEDA SWAP MEET
ALAMEDA AVE. AT 45TH ST. MON., WED.--FRI., 10A.M.--7P.M., SAT. AND SUN., 8A.M.--7P.M. MANY OF THE FOOD STALLS ARE OPEN WEEKENDS ONLY.
The Alameda Swap Meet may be the most overwhelming place you can visit on a Sunday afternoon, an immense converted factory complex south of downtown swarming with people, stuffed with hundreds of stalls selling everything from seaturtle extract to straw ranchero hats, fluffy white first-communion dresses to the latest in pinstriped gangsta wear, and alive with the racket of two dozen pumped CD players blasting trumpet-bright norteño hits. You are reminded that the Mexican population of Los Angeles is second only to that of Mexico City itself.
The crush to get into the parking lot can sometimes back up Alameda for as much as a mile, and the streets teem with trucks selling tacos, or fresh mackerel, or bootleg rap cassettes, or a queer, sweet cactus drink called lechugilla that is sold in plastic packets that resemble silicon implants.
Outside at the swap meet, in a vast sort of asphalt plaza that separates the two main buildings, the fences are decorated with Mexican flags and portraits of Mexican revolutionaries. Small children totter about clutching cotton candy and ears of roasted corn. Sometimes a DJ presides over hundreds of couples executing complicated two-steps. It's a vast fiesta every weekend of the year. Around the perimeter of the plaza and stretching back along an arcade to the southernmost parking lot is a bewildering succession of food stalls that perfume the air with grilled meat and sputtering oil, and a certain high note of stickiness--every kind of Mexican food you could possibly walk around with, and a few that are destined to land straight on your shoes.
The big food stall under the awning closest to the main building is a full-on Mexican restaurant without the walls, featuring grilled chicken, carne asada and pretty good steam-table dishes: chile verde, chicken mole, and a really good, spicy goat-meat stew the color of fresh blood. The big awning at the other end shades a Salvadoran stall where a woman pats pupusas one after the other, frying them hard and stacking them up in front of her. The pupusas are fantastic, if not the subtlest version of the cheese-stuffed corn patties, ready to be mounded with the spicy cabbage slaw called curtido and moistened with a fiery, brick-red smoked-chile sauce. Around towar...