Ten for ’20 [dining feature]
The 10 best restaurants to open last year span the culinary and budget landscapes
Many fine restaurants opened in the Beach Cities in 2019 – but you probably already noticed that. Visiting all of them is an adventure that takes you from modest cafes to elegant, curated spaces, with coffeehouses, grocery store lunch counters, mini-malls, and office parks along the way.
As always, it’s a struggle to compile a list of the 10 best eateries that debuted in the past year. I have a bias toward locally-owned, independent operations, though when a chain place has character and brings something unique to the neighborhood, they’re eligible. This was one of the rare years when one of these made the cut, because any list of the best would be incomplete without it.
As always I regretfully left off a few places, despite excellent experiences there. Decadence would have made the cut but they changed their menu and concept just before this article went to print, and El Barrio has some great ideas but their execution has been erratic. Addi’s Darbar was essentially the reopening of a previous restaurant, so it was not eligible.
I hear from readers who wonder if they’ll be able to afford to dine in the neighborhood, I so assume readers want value for your money. There were standouts at a variety of price ranges this year, and six winners offer very good meals for under twenty bucks. The restaurants at the other end of the scale made the list because they brought such creativity and skill to the table that the high tab is worth it.
To celebrate the fact that entrepreneurs are still catering to everyday diners, this year’s list will be presented with the moderately priced places at the top. As it happens, two of these are tiny and modest Italian restaurants operated by people who previously cooked at much more upscale operations.
Saor Italian Food
Hidden in Hermosa
Gianluca Zago and his wife Alexandra Manias spent years catering Italian dinners in private homes before opening a restaurant, and you might expect it to serve multicourse feasts. Instead Saor Italian Food is a tiny space where your pizzas, pastas, and desserts are ordered at a counter and eaten from paper plates. What makes those items different is the style, which represents the couple’s home north of Venice near the Austrian border, and the care with which everything is made. Their pizza Romana dough rises for 72 hours and as a result has the texture and flavor of fresh sourdough bread, and the meat lasagna uses shredded beef and a delicate bechamel sauce without tomato. They intend to broaden their menu in time, but the things they’re already serving are exceptional enough to make this Pier Plaza hideout well worth a visit.
Saor Italian Food, 25 Pier Avenue, Hermosa. (310) 504-0464.
Fatta a Mano, the Pasta Shop
Happy to wait
This strip mall gem is mostly kitchen, with good reason – handmade food is labor-intensive and takes a lot of space. There are six tables indoors, and at times that means a wait of over an hour for Marco Pacelli’s pastas, salads, pizza Romana, and baked goods. People are happy to wait or order food to go, because everything has the authentic flavor that Pacelli credits to his grandmother’s village near Naples. The menu is wide ranging within the categories they serve, with eight housemade pastas offered with nine sauces and eight pizza options on the menu, plus daily specials. If you have questions about any of these, Pacelli is a wealth of information, happily dispensing advice and samples from the front counter. His career includes running restaurants at Terranea and the Beverly Wilshire hotels, but he seems to be happier to be interacting with customers and serving the rustic food that he loves so much.
Fatta a Mano, 610 Torrance Blvd., Redondo Beach. (310) 316-5111. PastRBhoprb.com.
369 Ramen & Poke
A better stock
This place is different from every other entry on this year’s list because they don’t deliver any culinary innovation, other than offering high quality food at low prices in a supermarket parking lot. The stock for their tonkotsu ramen is simmered for at least 12 hours, not unusual at fine Japanese restaurants but remarkable in this environment, and their teriyaki sauce has spice and caramelized fruitiness that stands out from sugared soy sauce imitations. Their poke is fairly standard, but offered with more add-ins than is usual. Japanese food is about good ingredients seasoned minimally but for maximum effect, and 369 Ramen & Poke delivers on that promise at a very moderate price. For that they deserve the recognition.
369 Ramen and Poke, 3901 Inglewood Avenue #107, Redondo Beach. (310) 349-1993. 369ramenpokeca.com.
M & Love Café
Vegan for all
When you hear that a place has a sandwich of avocado, jalapeno-lime crema, rose petals, and Himalayan pink salt, you probably imagine a high style location with prices to match. You’re wrong in the case of M & Love, a modest lunch counter in North Manhattan that seats six people. Their food is inventive and made with top quality ingredients, as well as being both gluten-free and vegan. There are layers of flavor in their intricately composed sandwiches, with peppery, spicy condiments used to hint at heat without overdoing it. Their baked goods include delightful turmeric banana bread and a bagel that isn’t quite like any conventional version but does what a bagel is supposed to do. This proudly omnivorous food writer who bakes his own bread is recommending a gluten free vegan spot because it’s more than you’d expect. M & Love isn’t just for people who are avoiding meat and glutens, it’s for anyone interested in unusual and successful culinary experiences.
M & Love, 3319 Highland Ave., Manhattan Beach. (424) 247-8998. MLoveEat.com.
The Grain Café
South of the border vegan
For the first time, there are two vegan restaurants on my best of the year list, and both should be dining destinations for meat eaters, as well as their natural clientele. The Grain Cafe has the more comprehensive menu, with Mexican specialties adding depth to the selection. The owners are from Oaxaca, and you can tell from the finely balanced mélange of spices in their sauces. They excel at recreating delicious foods in healthier methods than is traditional – you’d be hard pressed to tell that their falafels are baked, and while the chips are fried they use rice bran oil, which is generally regarded as better than most alternatives. The Grain Café is the fourth outpost of a Los Angeles-based chain, but they fit the dining preferences of this neighborhood superbly.
The Grain Café, 713 North Pacific Coast Hwy., Redondo Beach. (424) 304-2694. GrainCafeOnline.com
Crafty Minds Brews And Bites
California pub food
It took until the fifth entry in this list to get to a place serving burgers and beer, and in other years those were most openings in the area. Gastropubs are still popular, but Crafty Minds was the only one to stand out this year. They offer bold but balanced use of spicy flavors, with ginger, ghost peppers, and habaneros in sauces that deliver the heat but have other nuances. They serve much more than burgers, and their flatbread pizzas, salads, and vegetable dishes make this a place where vegetarians can dine well too. Crafty Minds calls their style “California pub food,” and that’s a good description. They almost lost their place in this list due to some carelessly made items on my last visit, but the overall effect was still good. The flavors are fresh and surprising despite the predictable bar food base, and they deliver an interesting experience at a moderate price.
Crafty Minds, 1031 Hermosa Avenue, Hermosa Beach (310) 372-3978.
Dine in Tunisia
Of the many restaurants that opened last year, only one featured a cuisine previously unavailable in the South Bay. Barsha is the only Tunisian restaurant in Los Angeles to focus on that cuisine rather than presenting it alongside conventional Lebanese and Moroccan items. They bring a California sensibility to presentations but the flavors are solidly rooted in sauces that use citrus pickles, North African spices, and peppery harissa. Tunisia’s French and Italian colonial occupation is visible in an eggplant moussaka and beer-steamed mussels with a Provençale-influenced tomato and caper sauce. Other flavors are approachable but novel. Owners Adnen and Lenora Marouani are out of the kitchen as much as possible, greeting customers, getting feedback, and suggesting pairings from their wine and beer selection.The prices are higher than the previous places in this list but not steep – entrees run $18 to $29, and for a unique experience that’s worth it.
Barsha, 1141 Aviation Blvd., Hermosa Beach. (424) 452-6266. BarshaLife.com
South Hermosa Avenue is best known for Mickey’s Deli, which offers solid pizzas and sandwiches but isn’t what you’d call upscale dining. The neighborhood now has a destination restaurant in the form of Mosa, which specializes in Italian and seafood with a broad focus. Chef Anne Conness is part of a crack team that delivers exceptional service and a pleasant environment to complement her inventive dishes. These have echoes of cuisines from around the Mediterranean, with Spanish, Armenian, and North African overtones adding to the enjoyment of salads and pastas. Commerce from those places helped form Italian cuisine through the centuries, so perhaps she’s just acknowledging culinary borrowings going back to the Roman Empire. The creative action in Hermosa has been downtown for decades, but Barsha and Mosa show that there are finally places outside that enclave that are worth a special trip.
Mosa, 190 Hermosa Avenue, Hermosa Beach (310) 504-0381. MosacCastal.com
Slay Steak & Fish House
The familiar, well done
The two 2019 openings in downtown Manhattan Beach owe more to traditional American cuisine than the others in this year’s list, and that is true of both cuisine and environment. You can tell from the name Slay Steak & Fish House what they do, but not how well they do it. They do offer fresh seafood and aged meats, but with unusual nuances in cooking and sides. Their ahi tuna is seasoned and seared before cutting the steak from the fish and then seared again just before serving, a technique I’ve never seen before that delivers a remarkable texture to the exterior. The steaks and seafood arrive with vegetables fresh from the David Slay’s farm and wines from his vineyard, so it’s no surprise that the flavors throughout the dishes are unified to an unusual degree. The chef knows what vegetables will be in season soon, and everything can be planned around the produce that is coming next. Slay Steak & Fish House offers American classics refined for contemporary palates. You may not realize it needs to be done until you taste the results.
Slay Steak & Fish House, 1141 Manhattan Avenue, Manhattan Beach (310) 504-0902. SlaySteakAndFishhouse.com.
I was slightly skeptical when celebrity chef Josiah Citrin opened his new restaurant in Manhattan Beach in the former Fonz’s. Did we need another Italian, steak, and seafood place in an area saturated with them? No, if that was all Costa did, but they offer much more. Who could have guessed that avocado, seaweed, minty shiso leaf, and Japanese salty plums would make such an amazing salad, or that carrots glazed in passion fruit juice with lime and fresno chillies would be so delicious? Their seafood goes beyond standard grills, like the striped bass in a sauce with fennel, brown butter, and ponzu, and the steaks rival the best I’ve ever had. The menu isn’t very informative, making some innovative items look humdrum, but talk with your server and you will learn. The bar is also a highlight. If you like cocktails, their inventions will have you coming back for more. Costa has overcome a shaky start and is now delivering memorably good food from a master of flavors.
Costa, 1017 Manhattan Avenue, Manhattan Beach. (310) 376-1536. Costa-MB.com.
by Richard Foss