Forget the pillaging and plundering and the awful Johnny Depp movies, piracy actually had some cultural benefits, mainly the cross-pollination of cuisines with ingredients and spices from faraway regions. I've mapped out some of the more notorious pirate routes - the Mediterranean Barbary coast, the Caribbean, and the South Asian waterways - and have found some delicious restaurants (some modern, others traditional) where exotic flavors collide. AARGH!
Cha Cha Cha began by serving modern Caribbean food, but after more than 20 years in L.A., its dishes have become classic spicy comforts. The jerk pork and jerk chicken are the stars here, but the paella Andaluz, the chicken mole, and the St. Bart's curry shrimp are all delicious. The decor is festive, the sangria is strong, and the service is friendly.
Everything good in L.A. can be found in a strip mall. El Cochinito continues that tradition by serving up authentic homestyle Cuban cuisine. The restaurant is family owned and run for more than 20 years. The roast pork is my favorite. Make sure you order a side of fried plaintains. For lunch, try the Sandwich Cubano. They also serve Victoria beer and sangria.
I was very skeptical about this stand at the Farmers Market, but after having lunch here I can say Singapore's Banana Leaf is a gem. Perhaps it's not authentic to one true style, as they serve a fusion of Malaysian, Indonesian, and Indian cuisine, but the food is a delicious flurry of spice and flavor that tantalizes the American palate. The standouts are the laksa soup, mee-goreng pan fried noodles, and rendang beef curry. If you just want a tasty drink, try the ice kachang.
Top Chef Master Susan Feniger's restaurant Street is a sleek modern space serving worldwide street food - from Singapore toast with coconut and egg to spiced Moroccan lamb belly. Other delights include coconut curry fries, barbecue bao, and for the more traditionalist, an organic beef cheeseburger. Go for Happy Hour, Monday through Friday, for $6 apps and $5 beers and wines.
Chef Billy Jalanugraha's Thai food at Wat Dong Moon Lek is simply outstanding. When you peek into the kitchen and see him cooking beside an elderly Thai woman and young Latinos, you know you're in for a great meal. My favorite dish is the Tom Kka Udon a variation of the popular coconut soup. The panang curry and the barbecue pork are also delicious. They don't mess around with the heat - spicy actually means really hot. The space is cool and hip, decorated with Chef Billy's pop art, which makes you forget you're in a strip mall.
Chef Bryant Ng is cooking a fusion of cuisines from Singapore, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia at the Spice Table. There's a flare to some of the dishes, like the grilled pig's tail and the jellyfish salad, while others dishes are boldly authentic (tripe satay and spicy chicken livers). The food tastes traditional, but elevated to something special. The bar serves craft beers and even offers a sampler for $10. The restaurant has a friendly warm ambience. Sit outside during warm summer nights.
Spitz serves Mediterranean street food, but specializes mainly in doner kebab, the Turkish meats slowly roasted on a spit. You can get the doner as a sandwich, wrap, or salad. My favorite is the spicy doner sandwich, but the falafel is also fantastic. If you just want a snack, try the doquitos. This location also serves craft beer and offers a good happy hour Monday through Friday that is popular with locals.
Yes, there's a Haitian restaurant in Los Angeles (think Caribbean, African, and French flavors) and it serves some of the best chicken you'll eat in town. Tigeorges roasts their chicken and meats over an avocado wood burning spit. Other specialty dishes are the Cabrit Fricasse (goat) and the Lambi (conch). The gregarious owner George will happily make you a Black Coke (a Coca Cola with a shot of espresso) at the coffee bar while indulging in your broken French. Great place for lunch if you work downtown.
The Spice Station is absolutely the best store for exotic and hard to find spices. It's become popular with chefs and bartenders across town. The Spice Station also carries salts, chiles, sugars, and teas spanning all across the world. I discovered this store searching for annatto, but I've come to love the spice blends (like the Cajun Creole Blend and the Kebabi Masala) which I use to add flavor to marinades and stews.
Josef Centeno's Baco Mercat has won a lot of much-deserved acclaim; it's one of the most inventive and playful restaurants in the country. The food is a fusion of Latin, Southeast Asian, and Mediterranean flavors, and a haven for both adventurous carnivores and obsessive vegetarians. It's small plates or big plates. The menu changes daily according to what's fresh, but the staple is the signature "baco" sandwich - think of a pita-taco hybrid. The bar alone is a standout for its cocktails (pisco punch) and beers. And make room for the pineapple upside down cake. It's divine.