Monday, July 9, 2012

Would You Believe It's Chatsworth?: Strip Malls Reveal Culinary Treasures

One never knows the treasures that lie within the stucco and glass of the modern strip mall. Chatsworth, for all its mountainous and horsey glory, is infamous for being situated on the one of the least tony ends of the San Fernando Valley. However, one needn't travel as far as Ventura Boulevard to enjoy a variety of  inventive eateries tasty enough to please even my jaded Westside tastebuds.

Move over, Sprinkles: Frootsi soothes cravings on all fronts with boba, fro yo, and cupcakes. High marks for the uber-moist mango, with sunny yellow frosting.
A lot of my discoveries were, oddly, inspired by Harvey's personal food memories. That is to say, while a couple of our finds could be traced to dishes from his childhood, his current recollections of food are, shall we say, a bit hazy. He seldom remembers what he ate, except that it was good or bad. Happily, the following were all remembered with the rosy glow of satisfaction and a willingness to return for more. So much in fact, that we have returned to them repeatedly.

How do you eat a tower of French toast? Very, very carefully.
Harvey's mother Dora was ahead of most of her contemporaries as a working woman. She was the executive assistant to the owner of a vacuum cleaner manufacturer in 1950s Montreal. As such, she still had to fry up the bacon although she brought a lot of it home. He remembers her as a solid Canadian-English cook despite her Latvian roots, serving traditional meat and potato meals to her husband and two sons, and dainty tea sandwiches with the crusts cut off to girlfriends who came over to play mah jong.

Still, a few exotic or exciting dishes remain etched in Harvey's memory: An appetizer that his mother prepared by roasting a whole eggplant over the stove's open flame and scooping out its smoky interior onto some salad greens, mamaliga, a cornmeal dish similar to polenta that she made especially for her Romanian husband, and the endless mound of French toast that she would treat the family to on weekends. Harvey remembers that she would continue to fry up the egg-soaked slices of bread and pile them up until they could not see each other over the stack on the kitchen table.

The Country Deli on Topanga Canyon Boulevard seems to have reinterpreted Dora's bountiful vision with their signature tower of French toast. Lengths of ripe banana serve as columns between layers of thick-cut cinnamon swirl bread dipped in egg batter. Fresh strawberries and blueberries provide color and antioxidants and the requisite pancake syrup and whipped butter provide the decadence that can only come with a breakfast designed to defy both gravity and reason.

Like Cantonese carnitas: The Country Deli's Chinese chicken salad makes a believer out of me.
Childhood memories of my own - or in this case, demons - have been recognized and assuaged at Country Deli as well. My loathing of Chinese chicken salad, a dish that is neither Chinese nor much of a salad with its pallid iceberg drenched in sticky sweet and viscous dressing, has been regarded as something akin to treason, along with my failure to view "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" or learn how to roller skate. Little did I know what reward awaited me at this unassuming eatery: a pile of caramelized, crispy, chewy chicken breast atop a bed of crisp romaine and the requisite but still welcome mandarin oranges. I am usually happy feasting simply on the chicken, sans the rich dressing dotted with sesame seeds.

Lamb chops never had it this good - Farm Brothers' weekend BBQ plate
Another surprise, one that goes even further back into the recesses of my childhood, is the avocado smoothie at Pho CT. Although the restaurant is technically in Canoga Park, it goes along with my Topanga Canyon Boulevard smorgasbord. This has become our go-to pho place so far, with a flavorful broth and my default rare beef pho, made with filet mignon.

But the other night, I had to plummet the depths of memory and order one of these pretty green shakes that remind me of my mom's "avocado ice cream" - ripe fruit mashed with milk and sugar, and frozen in ice cube trays with toothpicks, the better to pick them up with. I didn't care for this sweet as a kid, but my (slightly) more sophisticated palate enjoyed the creamy richness of the fruit and my juvenile delight in the fact that you can actually make a dessert with avocado.

Green, green, it's green they say, on the far side of the hill:Pho CT's avocado smoothie

Farm Brothers, which is also located in a strip mall on the east side of Topanga Canyon Boulevard,  is a Russian market owned by an Armenian family. The small grocery store, with its picture-perfect produce, brightly packaged sweets, and fresh-baked cakes, provides more meaty madness. On weekends, the proprietors grill a variety of Mediterranean dishes out front, including what may be the best lamb chop plate this side of Yerevan. Complete with store-made hummus, a cold sort of ratatouille-esque veggie side, lavosh the size of pillowcases, and buttery rice, this takeout-only treat is a bit of old world yum.

Finally, Amazing Siam - which is two doors down from Frootsi and The Second to Last Ms. Pac-Man Machine in the Universe (at Uncle Ernie's Pizza 4-U) - provided a real crosscultural stretch with its dumpling appetizer. 

Feel the burn: Amazing Siam's spicy beef salad is one great bowl of fire.

My standards for Thai and Southeast Asian food have been set impossibly high from my years of feasting at restaurants in Long Beach and its colorful Cambodia Town. However, Amazing Siam lives up to its name with fresh ingredients, magazine-worthy presentation, and hospitable staff. The spicy beef salad, my acid test dish for a new Thai place, did not disappoint. The spring rolls, which are the size of tamales, are fresh and crisp tasting, with just the right amount of shrimp, noodles, and herbs. But it was the potstickers - admittedly not a Thai dish, but a catch-all crowd pleaser - that struck a nostalgic chord.

Dumplings, schmumplings: Amazing Siam's steamed potstickers are a hit in any language.

"It's kreplach," Harvey said delightedly when the plump pockets of pork and vegetables arrived at the table. I'll never know if he was being funny or if he really thought it was some form of Thai kreplach. But it just goes to prove that the more we learn about our differences as people - or as appetizers wrapped in dough - the more we see our similarities.