Our Go-To (Over and Over) Restaurants

By on Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

With a seemingly infinite selection of restaurants to choose from, it seems foolish to ever eat and repeat. The world is a big place, don’t go back to a restaurant you’ve already tried–right?

Well, no. Not always.

There are many reasons we establish one particular restaurant as our favorite, to where on a hungry Thursday night our thoughts turn eagerly, as they have many times before. Not for the coupons or the fact that we won’t get lost trying to find it. These places serve up happiness, good memories and food we know for a fact is going to be outstanding.

Here, as 2010 comes to a close, Toque contributors pay tribute to the restaurant in their life (past or present) that keeps them coming back for more. Where do we love to eat? Read on and find out.

The List

Arianna Armstrong loves:

Koji’s Sushi and Shabu Shabu
6801 Hollywood Blvd, #400 Hollywood, CA 90028
(323) 871-0200
Cuisine: Japanese
Founded 2002

Why I keep going back:

Not for location–this place is in a mall.

And it’s not a quaint downtown mini-mall, either. This is a gleaming shopping center, smack-dab in the middle of Hollywood. The kind of mall with a Gap and those accessory stores for teenagers.

But I love it: The generous servings of salmon and steak (my favorite combo); the overflowing plates of vegetables. I love the dipping sauces that I spike with extra garlic.

I also love that my ex-sister-in-law introduced me to Koji’s years ago and it became our special place. We were there when she told me about her new guy; there when we talked about his first trip home to meet her parents. We were at one table when we cried over my first miscarriage, we sat closer to the bathrooms my next time around. We still meet there, even though she isn’t my sister-in-law anymore.

The customers and waitstaff are pretty people on their way to better things. But, for me, Koji is its own destination–a delicious trip down memory lane.

Steve Cooper loves:
El Farolito, San Francisco
24th and Mission St.
Cuisine: Mexican

Why I keep going back:
You say burrito or Mexican food, my first thought is El Farolito in the Mission District of San Francisco. It’s the quintessential hole-in-the-wall super find. Back in college, my (now wife) took me there for a late night snack and we’ve been going ever since.

When we got married in San Francisco, we put a friend on the subway to grab burritos for everyone as a pre-wedding meal. It’s that good—and affordable. The burritos, quesadillas and nachos are delicious and huge! My personal favorite is the Super Burrito that comes stuffed with rice, beans, tomato, onions, cilantro, salsa, cheese, sour cream, avocado and choice of meat (I usually go for carne asada or chicken).

I’ll be visiting San Francisco again next month and I know my first and last stop during my trip will be at El Farolito. If you go, be prepared for a line that spills out the door, even at 2 a.m. Get in line and your patience (and stomach) will be rewarded.

Erika Kotite loves:
Union Hotel, Occidental, California
Cuisine: Family-style Italian
Founded 1879

Why I keep going back:
Whenever I visit Northern California where I grew up, my family members brace themselves for the inevitable: “I know—let’s go to the Union Hotel!” says I.

Going there since the age of three, I can’t really figure out the one thing that makes me (and everyone else) drive 20 miles of winding roads to get there. Maybe it’s the 120-year-old long bar with rugged locals drinking beer. Or maybe it’s course after course of simple but delicious comfort food—fresh salad with Italian dressing, homemade minestrone soup, fragrant ravioli, a sourdough-crusted pizza. Roasted duck, perfectly done, if you go on the right day.

Generations of Panizerras and Gonnellas smile down at me from old photographs that line the walls. They remember me from my wedding rehearsal dinner, I think. So it’s not one thing that brings me back. It’s a lot of things: good food, good service, great memories.

Robert Rodi loves:
Yes Thai, Chicago
Cuisine: Thai

Why I keep going back:
Having been to Thailand, I can confidently assert that the average Chicago storefront Thai restaurant is on par with, if not superior to, the grub you get on native soil. Which is why my favorite Thai joint is simply the one closest to wherever I’m living.

These days, that’s Yes Thai, and the dish I go back for — well; let me just say I can only go back for it when my partner’s away on a business trip. Because it’s so unrestrainedly garlicky, it renders me unfit for human company for 36 hours afterwards. It’s Spicy Ground Chicken with Basil, and you get to choose the spice level; I always tell them, “Eleven.” It comes with a little carton of white rice which you have to eat to cut the chicken, otherwise it’s like swallowing weapons-grade plutonium. The sweet coolness of the basil is all that keeps you from actually fainting.

Afterwards, my skin is slick with sweat, my aura invincibly vampire-proof, and I am transcendentally happy. If I’ve ordered it to go, I leave the empty container on the front porch, lest the lingering odor permeate the walls and tank the resale value of my house.

There’s a place for big, bold, knock-you-flat dishes in every epicure’s secret heart, and Yes Thai is where I go for my fix.

Katherine Spiers loves:
Lazy Ox Canteen
Los Angeles, CA

It’s a rare thing to find a restaurant that somehow seems to be cooking just for you. Even rarer if the chef seems to know your own palate better than you do: turns out roasted tomatoes and burrata with umeboshi and honey is the salad I’ve been waiting for. And I do like mussels after all, as long as they’re roasted and spicy and there are bits of feta in the sauce.

Lazy Ox Canteen has only been open for a year or so, but it’s already my go-to when I’ve got a couple extra pennies in my pocket. Any out-of-town visitor I host goes to Lazy Ox with me. Discovering how a chef can elevate ricotta fritters with my teenaged, aspiring chef sister is one of my favorite food memories. The menu changes constantly, but the dishes are always mysteriously successful mash-ups of East and West. Every trip there gives me a new absolute favorite.

Laurie Wiegler loves:
Las Fuentes, Reseda, California
(818) 708-3344
18415 Vanowen St

Las Fuentes is to Mexican food what Julio Iglesias is to song—so rich, so seductive, so muy divino that one hungers for it years later.

I’m not exaggerating.

Between 1996-1999 my friend Paul Madrid and I traipsed over to Las Fuentes every weekend, usually enjoying burritos but sometimes tacos or quesadillas. I could be in the worst mood prior to arrival but once I sat inside its orange walls and blue-tiled dining area I was transported.

I usually got the Burrito de Pollo Con Rajas (with grilled onions, chicken, chile strips and cheese) without the avocado, or sometimes Burrito de Bistek Encebollado. I made frequent trips to the killer salsa bar, usually juggling all grades of hotness in my hands.

Sure—it looks like a hole-in-the-wall from the outside. I remember nearly hitting cars as we tried to creep out of the doll-sized parking lot; but inside Las Fuentes is the San Fernando Valley’s very own Mexican resort—without the travel headache.

Jennifer Wolcott loves:
Méli-Mélo
Greenwich, CT
Cuisine: French/European

It had been a while since I’d returned to my childhood hometown. So, when I finally took my husband and kids back to Greenwich, Connecticut, I was delighted to discover several casual, European-style restaurants had opened amid the oh-so-swanky shops on Greenwich’s main street.

French Onion Soup

The one that most caught my eye was Méli-Mélo, a tiny, unpretentious creperie on lower Greenwich Avenue, a section of the street that had always been more shabby than tony. Méli-Mélo appeared colorful, welcoming, and child-friendly–but still pleasing to us grown-ups, too.

It was bustling, and we had to wait for seats. My husband, who is from France, was instantly at home with the French chatter in the open kitchen and the menu with its dizzying variety of both savory and sweet crepes. He ordered for us in French, bien sur, and he and our waiter discovered they had grown up in the same town outside Paris.

True to its name, Méli Mélo, which means a little of this and a little of that, offers more than just crepes. One can also order homemade soups (the French Onion is superb), sandwiches, fruit smoothies, sorbets, or several different espresso drinks.

Somehow, though, I have not been able to deviate much from my favorites: buckwheat crepes with either smoked salmon; Prosciutto di Parma, Mozzarella, and Mesclun; or grilled chicken with ratatouille. To finish, the simple butter-and-sugar crepe is divine with a steaming cappuccino.

Ever since that day when we stumbled upon Méli Mélo, I have yearned to live closer to this little gem. I have yet to find a restaurant with that authentically French combination of simple, fresh food beautifully presented in an understated setting. If I am even remotely close, I will make the detour to Méli Mélo for a little pick-me-up.

Amy Zavatto loves:
al di la
Brooklyn, NY
Cuisine: Italian

Yesterday morning, I eased the task of plowing through Christmas card-writing by watching Christmas in Connecticut, the holiday flick in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a food writer who, while full of marvelous amounts of moxie, can’t cook her way out of an Easy-Bake Oven, a plot that made me feel a whole lot better about a particular occupational handicap of my own.

Not about cooking—that I do a lot of for sure—but it is no small culinary hiccup to be a food writer who likes eating at the same few places over and over and over again. Even worse, at one of those said few favorite eateries, I don’t even deviate from the same order.

At al di la, the rustic, small-ish trattoria perched on a nice little corner of Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue and Carroll Street, this is what I’ve done for 12 years. If I had to live life without the guarantee of eating chef Anna Klinger’s soft and savory malfatti—ricotta and Swiss chard gnocchi gently bathed in browned sage butter—or her gorgeous roasted rabbit served on impossibly soft polenta with briny black olives, I may as well just start stocking up on boxes of saltines and jugs of water because, really, if she decides to stop making these sigh-inducing dishes I’m going to have to plan for my protest.

It’s not as if I have never tried anything else here–I pick off my husband’s plate and have been treated to her outstanding beet ravioli, luscious pork saltimbocca, and myriad specials that pop up every now and again, but it’s those two perfect primi and secondi from which I can’t seem to tear myself away.

The eatery opened the same year my husband and I tied the knot, and now that I think about it you can liken my loyalty to that malfatti and rabbit into a nice little foodie metaphor for marriage: Sure, sometimes I notice other things on the menu, and yes, sometimes those things can seem tempting — but they’re never as good to me as the thing I fell for at the get-go.

Written by the gang of toques

A group dedicated to serving up great content for Toque Magazine.

10 Comments

  1. Amy Zavatto says:

    Steve, I love El Farolito — it’s the first place I ever had horchata. Yum.

    Katerine, any place named Lazy Ox makes me want in!

  2. Tamar says:

    But Amy – where oh where is the perfect chicken sandwich for you? If you find it you might eat *that* for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

  3. Amy Zavatto says:

    RT @ToqueMag: Our Go-To (Over and Over) Restaurants http://bit.ly/h8iVId

  4. RT @ToqueMag: Our Go-To (Over and Over) Restaurants http://bit.ly/h8iVId

  5. Bill Esparza says:

    RT @AriannaLA: RT @ToqueMag: Our Go-To (Over and Over) Restaurants http://bit.ly/h8iVId

  6. Thanks for the RT, hotstuff! @streetgourmetla RT @ToqueMag: Our Go-To (Over and Over) Restaurants http://bit.ly/h8iVId (via AriannaLA)

  7. Amy Zavatto says:

    Oh Tamar, does the perfect chicken sandwich EXIST??!!

  8. Contributors @toquemag wrote about our must-return restaurants. Mine's here in LA – http://bit.ly/dWxtXa

  9. Hank Holton says:

    Don’t forget the Milford Oyster House in Milford, New Jersey.
    It will always be my favorite. Ed Cos is a great chef.

  10. RT @ToqueMag: Our Go-To (Over and Over) Restaurants http://bit.ly/hLweT7

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