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Several of my friends are in the food or restaurant business, so when one of them suggests a place they love, I listen and will join them for a meal that I know will be (usually) very good on all levels, from chef skill, to products used, to recipes, to service and decor. Baran’s 2239 in Hermosa Beach is the kind of neighborhood gem that every neighborhood wishes inhabited their backyard.

With a tiny parking lot, you best bet is to park a block or two away and give yourself a reason to walk off dinner; or better yet take a car service and enjoy your wine with dinner ($25 corkage for 1st bottle). We brought a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a Gainey Pinot Noir for four of us, so we each had two glasses with our meal and enjoyed the lighter wine with the lighter dishes.

We started with the beef tartare, served with shrimp chips and korean spices. It was a hit with the raw meat lovers like myself, but not so much for the non devotees of uncooked red meat.

The quail with white beans, nuts, chives, and citrus was a delightful choice for everyone. The contrasts in textures and flavors worked well together to bring everyone joy in their mouth:)

The Pork Belly made us all applaud and fight for every bite as we sought to eat just one more morsel of porcine goodness.

To balance out some of the protein we also got the grilled broccolini with pomegranate seeds and a nice bean purée.

Since we were all food lovers, we ordered more dishes as we finished one, so the next up were the seared sea scallops, easily the favorite of the evening, and the waiter graciously offered to add one more scallop for our table of four so we could all eat one 🙂

The fried chicken was an interesting take that was different enough for us to enjoy, while comforting enough for all to say “ah!”

We weren’t sure if we wanted to try the jerk extra spicy wings after the guy at the table next to use said he loved spice, but was in pain after one bite. We literally watched his face turn beet red and two of us decided at the end of the night to take the chance. It was searingly spicy, but edible. The disappointment was that the heat lacked complexity or depth of flavor. We felt that if we were going to endure the heat, there should’ve been more spice or oomph. We would probably never order this again, but we were very glad we tried it.

In spite of the disappointing last dish, I loved everything else, especially the cozy local vibe and the obviously very local clientele. I would come back here anytime with a few friends so we could share a few plates. We ate 8 plates in all (we doubled up on one of the ones pictured) and with the corkage fee on 2 bottles it came to around $75 per person, including tax and a 20% tip, a great deal on this level of service, skill, and ingredients.

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I have never been to Thailand, so my take on Thai restaurants is entirely based on what I have eaten outside of Thailand. Jitlada is wonderful, but Hollywood too far away for regular visits, as is Chan Dara, now that it is only in Larchmont, so Natalee Thai has become my default place for Thai food.

One of my litmus tests for Thai food is the level and kind of spice they use. Warnings of spicy are good when they use thai chilis (not jalapenos) and I actually need several tissues to blow my nose and wipe the tears from my eyes 🙂 

The Phu Ket steamed sole filet, with garlic, lime, chili, and Thai fish sauce for $13.75 on steamed baby bok choy was a tender symphony of fish simply done. the surprising level of heat in the chilis was astounding, and I grabbed some of the thai iced coffee one of my friends was drinking to calm the fire down. 

I tried the sea bass version of the same in take out for $18.95, but sadly the sauce had spilled out of the take out container and the pieces of sea bass were disappointing small for the price.

The Pad See Ew with beef for $11.25 was slightly oily, but the flavors were so good that one person literally polished off the entire plate and wanted another serving to go!

The Yum Woon Sen clear glass noodles for $10.50 had a nice fresh lime garlic and chili sauce with the calamari, shrimp, chicken, and vegetables. This was perfect for a lighter noodle dish.

To round out some of the noodles and meat, we also got the mixed vegetables for $9.25.

The nice thing about eating with people who love to eat is that we are always planning our next meal as we are eating, so we ordered some food to go as soon as we finished eating! 

We chose to get the Natalee fresh rolls for $7.50,

and order of pad thai for $11.95 which includes chicken, shrimp, and tofu,

and their BBQ chicken for $11.50, which was a great idea because with the stormy weather in Southern California lately, having great food for another meal with friends is priceless!

A local told me about Metro Cafe, but when we tried to go during brunch the line was so long that there was even a line going into their parking lot; a very unusual sight for a place that is attached to a Travelodge! This is one of those neighborhood gems hidden in plain sight, known only by the locals who are willing to ignore the usual association of bad diner food cafes attached to national chain motels. Once I tasted their food, I literally went back for breakfast lunch and dinner within 2 weeks and on one day went back for dinner after eating breakfast there!

Being a Californian cafe, they use local and organic ingredients in several of their items, but what sets them apart for me is the elevated skill of their kitchen to turn out the usual suspects of omelettes, salads, and entrées like lamb chops, into dishes worthy of a detour. Their generous portions, and efficient service have made this a regular stop for many who have their own reserved seats, so call ahead if you want a reservation especially during busy brunch week-end times, or end of the week dinner times.

This plate of ham and eggs looks plain and simple, but the flavor of the ham was accented by the grill, and the potatoes hidden under the toast were nicely crisp. Even garnish of the piece of fruit was ripe and juicy for $13 this was enough for two.

The Serbian Americana for $14 is served with cured meat and mozzarella, a hearty breakfast with a twist on the american meat and cheese.

All their omelettes are $13, and the pesto portabella mushroom was so fluffy and loaded with mushrooms, that I had trouble finishing the eggs, never mind the remainder of the plate.

Lunch of a simple tuna sandwich for $13 with sweet potato fries, was surprisingly tasty with a tuna salad that had the fresh crunch of vegetables, and a light hand with the mayo.

For the vegans and health conscious, they had several options like the farro salad, which you could add chicken, salmon, or steak to for an additional supplement. I added chicken breast for a total of $17 and was surprised at how moist and flavorful the chicken was, with a nice char to complement the hearty salad.

Dinner was equally impressive, with some very decent wines from around the world. Nearly all the entrées are around $30, including the lamb chops with grilled vegetables; when a meat lover eats all the vegetables on the plate, you know they are perfectly seasoned.

The lamb osso bucco was a giant lamb shank, that was my meal for 2 days. That is large slices of cheese on top that were really overkill for the delightfully slow cooked and tender shank.

The gorgeous sea beam was a spectacular sight to behold, along with marvelous roasted vegetables, but it was slightly overcooked. It was a very large portion for the price of $28, and I was impressed that they served the entire fish rather than just a filet.

If you are anywhere near Culver City or West Los Angeles, find this small cafe, and enjoy the food before it becomes so well known that you won’t be able to get a seat unless you are a regular:)

So many of my places in my old neighborhood are gone, so seeing a familiar facade drew me back to Hop Li at their Pico location. I went with two others who had been customers and were also returning for the first time in many years. 

We specifically went for the crab with ginger and green onions, and while the crab was very fresh, it tasted somewhat bland, as if there was not enough seasoning, ginger, and heat when it was flashed into the hot oil to give it a nice sear. The freshness of the crab made up for it, but we were disappointed with what used to be a favorite.

 We had no better luck with the dry beef chow fun. Thankfully it wasn’t greasy, and the beef was tender, however the noodles were not wok charred and again it lacked seasoning. We had to chili crisp to it to liven it up.

We tried the orange shrimp which were nicely presented, but the broccoli was not only unseasoned and plainly steamed/boiled, but they were lukewarm/cold. A sad combination of flavors for a pretty plate.

The string beans with XO sauce were the most flavorful dish we ate, the only true winner that evening.

Dessert was the standard orange slices with added canned lychees that were surprisingly not overly sweet. One of us took the plentiful leftovers home to add some life to them.

Going back to an old favorite always comes with the peril of finding it is not as good as it was… 

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