The BEST of the rest: 2014

I didn’t have a category in which to place these last few restaurants I love, so here they are in no particular order. These restaurants have been solid contenders in my dining repertoire this year and hopefully, will continue to impress in 2015.

Starting with Los Angeles County, Dominique’s Kitchen in Redondo Beach has been winning us over again and again. This year, we visited a total of four times — a mean feat when you think about how many restaurants I actually get to return to every year. It has become my son’s favorite restaurant and he will find any excuse for us to dine here. Chef Dominique Theval and his wife Liza run this little French bistro which offers some of the best home-style fare southern California has to offer. Chef Dominique creates his own rillettes, pates, lamb sausages, and a myriad of other things to tickle your fancy. If you’re planning to visit, make sure you call for a reservation because they get packed. There are two posts from 2014, but here is my most current one.

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Chef Frank DeLoach is a young chef who has almost the exact same palate as I do. Therefore, it is always such a pleasure to eat something he’s created. His combination of tart, heat and savory is spot-on and has cooked some of the best Asian-inspired dishes I’ve ever eaten. His ability to present Asian flavors on a plate is incredible — he’s not Asian — and blows me away every time. The menu at Tavern on 2 in Long Beach is focused on gastropub fare, but that’s not what I go there for. Choose any of the non-Western dishes on the menu for one of the most tantalizing journeys your tastebuds will go on. You can read my review here.

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There’s something about family-owned and run restaurants which appeal to me. Ceppo (pronounced che-po) in Huntington Beach is one of them. Its location is its biggest enemy which does absolutely no justice to what the restaurant has to offer. Pair with that a drab ambiance and most people would not even bother stepping inside. However, once you do, you will be so pleasantly surprised by the skill of Chef Tomi who previously owned what’s it called in Newport Beach. Not only are the main dishes incredible, but you will be blown away by the beautiful desserts as well. Read about my visit here.

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I was at first skeptical about Selanne Steak Tavern because of its celebrity attachment, however, all was quashed when I experienced one of the best meals this year, along with top notch service to boot. The restaurant is beautiful regardless whether you sit on the outside patio or in the many rooms inside. Old school charm in a modern setting is what I call it, where the impeccable attention to detail makes you wonder why no one else is doing the same. I won’t spoil it for you, but I was just blown away by all the little things Selanne Steak Tavern adds to a visit — some might not even recognize them, but I sure did! Here’s my post from this year.

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Istanbul Grill is one of those restaurant you will easily miss if you’re not looking for it. Located in a plaza across from the Costco in Fountain Valley, it is not exactly in a great spot, but once you’ve eaten here, it will fast become your favorite Middle Eastern place. The food is flavorful and can absolutely compare with some of the best out of lil Arabia. During lunch time, the crowd can be overwhelming so I suggest going early. Here’s my post from this year.

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My last pick is Counterpoint in San Diego, a little neighborhood eatery which has been on my mind ever since we visited several months ago. My son still comments on the Brussels sprouts whenever I make mine at home because they are not nearly as good as the kimchi infused ones here. Counterpoint offers a menu of familiar comfort foods, but all with a bit of a twist, like the pastrami sandwich made with tongue. The menu is almost completely made in-house including sausages and pickles, which is highly impressive when you see how small the restaurant is. You can read about it here.

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There you have it. This is my last post of the year and I want to thank all of you for your continued support and readership. Join me again in 2015 for more food finds all across southern California and beyond. If you have any suggestions of your favorite restaurants, please let me know! Happy New Year to you all.

 

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5 favorite Asian restaurants of 2014

I often crave comfort foods I grew up eating. After a string of non-Asian meals, I will find myself gravitating towards something familiar, usually consisting of rice, but also, noodles of some sort swimming in broth. I also love spicy foods, so southeast Asian cuisines are especially popular in my culinary repertoire.

One of my favorite restaurants is Rakiraki Ramen and Tsukemen, located in what may be considered as San Diego’s Chinatown. On every visit — which is practically every time I go to San Diego — I will order the ikagetso (fried squid) as well as chicken karaage (Japanese style fried chicken) and a ramen of some sort depending on my mood. On my last visit, I returned once again to the original, one of the first ramen offerings I fell in love with from the start. You can read my visit from this summer, here.

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Vientiane is a hole-in-the-wall which I frequent at least once a month and now, have gotten some of my friends completely hooked on it as well. The northern Thai and Lao dishes are a huge hit especially the crispy rice, ong choy, Lao sausage, and if you’re into it, mok pa (steamed catfish in banana leaf). The kids who work here know my order and laugh when I veer off the usual because they know at some point during my meal, I will order the dishes I didn’t at the start. Here is my last post from 2013.

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I found Rice Paper Bistro last year and it was one of my top 10 picks of 2013. This little spot sticks out like a sore thumb in the run-down strip mall it is situated in, but has remained a favorite in 2014. Step inside and you will be surprised at its modern feel and creative menu. My favorites are the ong choy salad, fried frogs legs and my latest indulgence, beef with ginger and scallion. The specials board is often dotted with new and innovative dishes you’ll absolutely adore. Here’s my post from 2013.

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On cold days like these, my favorite thing to do is visit Tang 190 for one of its hearty Korean soups. Here, you can indulge in bone soup (sullungtang) which has that milky look from simmering for hours on end. Enjoy a spicy beef soup (yukgejang) or my son’s favorite, bibimbap (beef stone pot rice). The Napa cabbage miso beef bone soup is currently my favorite. Read about Tang 190 here.

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Whenever I’m up in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles, Pine and Crane is a must-stop even if I am actually up there for a meal — I will order take-out to enjoy the next day. This little fast casual spot has been my favorite Chinese eatery this year with its tasty ma po tofu, 3-cups chicken, beef roll, dumplings and more. What I love most about the restaurant is its ability to create these traditional Chinese dishes but without the greasiness. We need Pine and Crane in OC! Read about them here.

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Stay tuned next week for more “best of” lists of 2014!

 

 

The Republique of belly busting goodness

I’ve been wanting to visit Walter Manzke’s Republique ever since it opened. In fact, I wanted to visit the minute I found out about it, and that was a while ago when we were dining at Petty Cash and Chef Manzke stopped by our table for a minute to chat and told us about it — his family was eating at the next table. Many of my friends have dined there and I have heard nothing but praises for its libations and its menu.

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We arrived about 30 minutes after the restaurant opened on a Saturday night. We had no reservations and decided to wing it. Luckily, we were seated right away in the front of the restaurant against the window parallel to the bar. It was a good seat, a perfect vantage point for me to people watch. The restaurant is stunning with cathedral-high ceilings and seems to sprawl well on into the far back.

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I love the homage to Marco Pierre White, the original celebrity chef and enfant terrible (bad boy) of the culinary world — way before Gordon Ramsey or Anthony Bourdain made it fashionable.

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Our server Rosie was absolutely delightful. I had a lot of questions and she answered everything she could. Whatever stumped her, she immediately went to seek out answers.

We started with the essential cocktail, a Whiskey Fix ($12) comprising lemon, berries and rye whiskey. It was refreshing and not harsh at all which is really surprising. Even I liked it. If you prefer wine, there is an extensive wine list and there is a sommelier available to help you out if you’re unsure of what to select.

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The breads here are simply incredible. Complimentary baguette is brought to the table on a wooden block with butter. However, I highly suggest ordering the Normandy Butter ($5) as well as a side of Wood Oven Pan Drippings ($5) which arrives in a baby Staub cast iron cocotte. Be careful when you lift the lid as it is still steaming.

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The butter is creamy, thick, salty, everything I want butter to be. We slather it onto the warm baguette slices and watch it sink into the bread, melting into the crevices, before devouring it. The pan drippings are a whole ‘nother story. Dotted with bits of onion, this is what dreams are made of — well, MY dreams anyway. We went through the initial baguette, PLUS two more refills and we still could not finish all the drippings and butter on the board. This is definitely worth the 10 dollars, and I highly recommend it especially if you love good bread.

If you’re a Charcuterie aficionado, definitely order a board ($28/or $7pp) as everything is made in-house (I can see the meats hanging from where I’m sitting). It is simply breathtaking and absolute debauchery!

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If you’ve been to Chef Manzke’s Petty Cash, you will understand the concept of this next dish. Chips & Dip ($14) is Tasmanian sea trout tartare cubes topped over essentially what we know as raita (cucumber, mint, yogurt, cumin seed). But the best part is the cone of crispy pork rinds sprinkled with espelette pepper, za’atar and salt to use as your “chips”. At Petty Cash, Chef Manzke offers them with a guacamole topped with uni. It is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

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On the topic of uni, Manzke is a man after my own heart. His love of uni is possibly equal to mine. Therefore, when I scanned through the menu and did not see any uni in sight, I was perplexed, but also, disappointed. Turns out, the restaurant did not receive any uni shipment the day of our visit and therefore, no uni was offered. Guess I’ll have to make another trip.

Eggs on Toast ($11) typically with uni on top of scrambled eggs is instead substituted with smoked yellowtail and a disc of breakfast radish. This might be my least favorite dish of the night. Perhaps it was my pre-conceived notion of it having uni on top, but nevertheless, it was the only item I wasn’t excited about.

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If you happen to see Charcoal-Grilled Santa Barbara Spot Prawns ($16 each), order it. The tender flesh almost melts in you mouth and I can’t stop myself from sucking on the head for every drop of the shrimp tomalley (it is actually hepatopancreas in shrimp but tomalley sounds so much better) I am able to find. The corn, peaches and peanut accoutrements are surprisingly well-paired albeit, the Thai curry was a tad on the mild side making it difficult to detect.

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Crispy Fried Maryland Soft Shell Crab ($26) is possibly the priciest soft shell crab I have ever eaten. The crab is perfectly crispy accompanied by a Santa Rosa plum sauce, blistered green beans, slivers of garlic and julienned ginger. There is chile, but not enough to cause much damage. It is delicious, possessing familiar flavors of Asian cuisine.

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We finish with Spaghetti Rustichella: Carbonara ($19) style. The noodles are sublime, perfectly seasoned and unctuous on the palate. Unfortunately, the bits of pancetta are fatty and gristly. We move them to the side and polish off all the pasta.

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The restaurant becomes extremely loud as the evening goes by. The hoards of thoroughfare going through the bar area is frustrating. There is little space for people to hover — yet they do — while trying to snag a bar seat as soon as someone vacates their spot. It reminds me of dim sum in Asia where people are waiting for you to finish eating so they can take your table.

If you are unlucky enough to sit with your back against the bar, it will be inevitable that you’ll be knocked about by passersby who are trying to squeeze between you and the lingerers. There just isn’t enough room for so many people to be in one area without strangers touching you for no reason. My suggestion? Make a reservation and ask not to be seated by the bar.

Republique
624 S La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Tel: 310-362-6115

République on Urbanspoon

 

Pine and Crane warms my soul

Several months ago, while spending the day with my BFF up in LA, we decided to have lunch at Pine and Crane, a restaurant I had read about located in Silverlake. A few weeks ago, while up in LA for a conference, I returned again and decided to see if my return visit warranted the same love I felt on my first trip here. It absolutely did.

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It is hard not to love Pine and Crane. From the moment you step inside the clean, minimalistic decor of this modern eatery, a feeling of serenity washes over you. Pick up a menu by the door, and when you’re ready, walk up to the counter and order.

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On my first visit, we order Dan Dan Noodles ($7.50), usually served cold or at room temperature. The one here is warm, tossed with a sesame peanut sauce, chili oil and topped with julienned cucumbers and crushed peanuts. We order this on the second visit as well and I noticed a lot more noodles this time around, not always a good thing because there wasn’t enough sauce to go with it. The noodles are delicious and nicely al dente.

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Beef Roll ($6) is the staple of any respectable Taiwanese meal at a restaurant. The one here is very tasty, but on the small side. Usually, when ordering this at a restaurant, I like to have at least three to four people to finish this. Here, you can easily polish an order off on your own. The pancake is not greasy and the beef not overly sweet. Just perfect. (please excuse this photo as I took it with my phone).

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“San bei ji” is Three Cup Jidori Chicken ($12) while I love this dish, traditionally, it is served bone-in and tedious to eat. Here, only chunks of chicken meat is used with one of the lightest, yet so very flavorful soy and rice wine sauce combos around. Chinese basil (or Thai basil) adds to the aroma of this savory dish. We loved it (sorry, this photo was taken with my phone too).

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On my subsequent visit, we enjoyed Zha Jiang Noodles ($8), something my mother makes all the time when I was growing up. Here, a ground Kurobuta pork with black bean sauce mix sits atop the noodles with julienned cucumbers and scallions. It tastes pretty close to my mother’s version and the best part? The hints of fresh garlic! — at home, we would take a nibble off a fresh clove of garlic and then a bite of noodles.

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I love Mapo Tofu ($9) and even though I try to make it at home, it never quite comes out the way I want it to. Here, bits of ground Kurobota pork is nestled between the soft cubes of tofu seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns. It is not greasy at all! In fact, everything here is not greasy, a really difficult feat to make Chinese food taste good at a restaurant.

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Don’t forget to order some greens, which comes from the owners’ farm in Bakersfield. Sweet Potato Leaves ($6) is my favorite as I don’t often find it at the farmers market. So tasty and addicting I can polish an entire plate on my own.

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We didn’t eat the next two items, but I asked some people sitting at the next table if I could take a photo of theirs. Pork Dumplings ($5) look just the ones I’m used to eating — very respectable! I’m definitely trying these next time.

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Beef Noodle Soup ($9) is usually on the oily side, but I did not detect a drop of oil in this bowl of deep, dark, beef broth swimming with beef shank, baby bok choy and preserved mustard greens. I wish I was bold enough to ask if I could taste it — but that would have been rude.

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Pine and Crane is one of those places I wish was right here in Irvine, but then again, I’ll be broke because I would eat here every single week — maybe even several times a week!

Pine and Crane
1521 Griffith Park Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Tel: 323-668-1128

Pine & Crane on Urbanspoon

Soho Taco isn’t just tacos anymore

It’s been several years since this initially small, one-cart catering company hit the OC food scene, and through the years have expanded through leaps and bounds to 15 carts today. For those of you who do not know, my story with Soho Taco, it happened a little like this.

A friend was looking for a taco truck or caterer for a party he was having at home. He asked me for some recommendations and since I didn’t have any, I did some research and gave him several names I came across just from googling. He selected Soho Taco and then tells me later it was the best tacos ever.

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Fast forward and I’m at a Yelp elite event at Proof Bar in Santa Ana and Soho Taco was there that evening. I fell in love after first bite. Since that fated moment, I have been an avid follower of this company, recommending them to friends for their special day.

Since then I’ve been to a wedding and a baby shower catered by Soho Taco and stop by their food truck whenever I have a hankering for one of those mouthwatering tacos. Soho Taco is not an ordinary taco vendor. Theirs are made with so much love it overflows right into you mouth. One bite and you’ll understand why. The flavors are simply stunning and addictive. Ranging from the ubiquitous carne asada and pollo tacos to the mahi mahi or shrimp ones, there’s something magical about the flavor profiles bursting in your mouth.

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Then there’s the veggie taco, filled with portabello, red and yellow bell peppers, onions, and the secret seasoning which ties it all together. These days, they are offering tofu al pastor as well as a soyrizo taco for their many vegetarian customers. This year, Soho Taco launched an add-on to their various packages offering customers the opportunity for tray passed hors d’oeuvres at their special event. I thought it was such an excellent idea, for those wanting something a little more than just the casual tacos. Some of the items I tried are listed below with photos.

Espadillas de Fruta is a refreshing start with skewers of watermelon and mango in a tangy salsa de chamoy sauce and tajin rim adding to the tartness with a hint of spice.

DSC02634 Those of you who have tried the tortilla chips from Soho Taco will know what I’m talking about when I say they are addicting. Tostaditas de Aguacate is a freshly made tortilla crisp topped with guacamole, queso fresco and microgreens, you won’t want to stop at one. DSC02649 The Red Snapper Ceviche with the perfect amount of lime is also served on this tortilla crisp. Mouth-puckering good and absolutely delightful. DSC02660 Vegetarians can choose the Rebanadas de Uva, slices of toasted baguette topped with goat cheese, sweet grapes, and sprinkled with chile lime peanuts. You get a wonderful contrast of textures in this one little bite. DSC02642 Some hot offerings like Albondigas is so delicious you won’t want to stop at one, but I highly recommend leaving some room for those tacos. Mexican meatballs stuffed with dried figs are smothered in salsa de chipotle giving it a rich, smoky taste your mouth will crave. DSC02633 Then, there is Espadillas de Camarones, shrimp skewers drenched in a house made sweet and sour sauce I absolutely loved. DSC02645 I thoroughly enjoyed the Tofu Al Pastor taco which has the same powerful flavors of the pork using tofu. Of course I’d much rather eat a regular al pastor taco, but for a vegetarian taco, it was rather delicious. DSC02652 If you’re planning a special event: wedding, anniversary, birthday, graduation, whatever it is, and you’re looking to see if Soho Taco is the way to go — IT IS — you absolutely won’t regret it.

You can contact Selene by emailing her at selene@sohotaco.com or call her direct line 714-852-2472 for more information. To reach Soho Taco‘s main office the number is 714-805-6218.

Al Bacio successfully delivers authentic Italian

In December of last year, we visited Al Bacio for a media preview. There were so many people and the meal felt rushed and I was uninspired by the whole experience. I generally do not like to gauge a restaurant by a media tasting alone anyway, preferring to return again on my own at a later date. By visiting again several months later also gives the restaurant and its staff a chance to work out any opening hiccups they might have had during the preview.

So we returned recently to re-visit Chef Christian Simionato, previously sous chef at Pelican Hill Resort’s Andrea Ristorante, and give it another try. We find Al Bacio offering a menu of dishes showcasing the best of regional Italian cuisine with a myriad of top quality ingredients imported directly from Italy.

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While we perused the menu, a basket of bread arrives. There is a house-made focaccia and surprise surprise, slices of a rustic loaf from Orange County’s premier bakery, OC Baking Company! When asked why he didn’t source bread right there in LA, Simionato’s response was “I give my customers the best of every ingredient, so why not the bread also”.

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An amuse bouche of gianchette (whitebait) with artichoke is served in a jar with a thin piece of crisp bread. It was definitely an “amuse” to my “bouche” with its tangy bursts tantalizing my tastebuds.

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I love octopus and have been known to order it whenever it is on the menu. Therefore, it was a no brainer that Polipo all Griglia ($15) would be the logical choice to kick the meal off with. Octopus, which has first been braised, is finished off on the grill for a char, intensifying its flavors tremendously. Paired with a red pepper bagnetto — red pepper sauce — and a lightly dressed mixed green salad, make sure you gather all three components for each mouthful as they work together in perfect harmony.

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Scallo Scottate in Padella ($16) is a dish of seared scallops with Sicilian caponata and topped with to-die-for crispy pancetta. No additional words are required.

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If you’ve never had white asparagus, you won’t know how delicate and sublime it tastes. However, if you have, then its distinctively aromas will hit you immediately. Vellutata di Asparagi Bianchi ($13) is a white asparagus soup finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and topped with a sauteed spot prawn. We mmm-ed and ahh-ed with each spoonful and I delighted in sucking on the spot prawn head drawing out every last bit of its umami goodness.

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If you don’t order the way we do when you dine out, and you’ve only a three course meal planned (or just an entree), I highly suggest a pasta dish. Tagliatelle al Ragu di Agnello ($18) is a good choice simply because the tagliatelle is made in-house and served with a lamb ragu enveloped in a rich hearty savory sauce.

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Or, if you’re looking for a “secondi” course as they do in Italy, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe ($16) is perfect for you to share. A simple, yet utterly delicious spaghetti with pecorino and black pepper, you will want to eat mouthful after mouthful, and won’t be able to stop.

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Moving on to entrees, I was intrigued by Orata “al Cartoccio” ($30), a whole sea bream “al cartoccio”, meaning it is wrapped in parchment paper like “en papillote” in French cuisine. The fish is de-boned and stuffed with zucchini, cherry tomatoes, black Taggiasca olives into its cavity. The result is moist, flaky flesh with the beautiful amalgamation of flavors from the vegetables. I ate the entire fish — well, almost!

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Meat lovers should find Guancia di Manzo Brasata al Barbaresco ($29) incredibly satisfying. Beef cheeks braised in Barbaresco (wine) is so tender you wouldn’t need a knife to cut it. The “mulino sobrino” polenta is light, perfectly textured for me, although a little too thin for my dining companion. The sauce is rich and I wanted more of it to accompanying the sauteed mushrooms with.

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The unassuming restaurant sits on the very busy Sunset Blvd. Drive a little faster and you will miss it completely. However, if you take a moment and step inside, you’ll find some heartwarming and very stellar dishes that will surely surprise and tantalize you.

Al Bacio
8741 Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Tel: 310-657-1182

Al Bacio Ristorante on Urbanspoon