The San Fernando Valley is well-known to foodies as the home to some of the city’s best sushi restaurants. But there’s a lot more to the 818 than yellowtail and omakase. So without further ado, our well researched, very subjective list of a dozen essential San Fernando Valley restaurants. And because no roundup of the Valley’s key eats would be complete without them, a couple of sushi spots are included.
This tiny eatery is a family affair, and a most modern one at that. Bill oversees the well seasoned grill. His wife Hiroko does the fixin's. And Bill’s ex takes orders and handles beverages. Burgers here are straightforward: thin patties with nicely charred edges tucked between soft grilled burger buns along with a thick slice of tomato, a few wisps of lettuce, pickles and optional onions, grilled or raw. No secret sauce, just good ol' mayo. It all adds up to a satisfying burger that attracts legions of loyal regulars. Don’t show up on Saturday though; this is a weekday-only operation.
Just what the doctor ordered for the neighborhood, judging by the throngs of 30-somethings who pack the house. It’s a striking space with coved ceilings and oversized leather booths along the east wall, the most coveted seats in the house. If you’re looking for a lively party that includes good drink and food, this is the 818 must-go. Menu highlights include mussels in a bold chili and fennel scented sauce and for dessert, “deep fried fluffer-nutter,” a crunchy, gooey, happy marshmallow mess, just right for those post drinking munchies. Although Black Market is making its mark on the Valley dining scene, it has yet to do so on its own building, so look for the "Victory Motorcycle" sign out front.
We could easily make a meal of the starters at this haute barbecue joint: an order of fried mac and cheese, some kobe beef chili cheese donuts (yes you read that right) and a few skewers of juicy, super thick cut, finger lickin’ bacon; it’ll kill you but at least you’ll go out on a happy note. But seriously, there’s a reason this restaurant and the bar in particular get a good crowd: along with satisfying eats, there’s an extensive selection of craft beers and whiskeys. The rock and roll is cranking. And no one seems to care if you’re in a T-shirt or a suit. Did we mention the crisp edged mini corn muffins that start each meal? The last Wednesday night of every month, chef Aaron Robins takes diners South for a Louisiana boil. Think shrimp, crawfish and crab with all the accoutrements.
In our experience, cops know their food. And there are always a few officers and sheriffs tucking into two inch thick challah French toast or steamy matzoh ball soup at this 45 year old deli. The sandwich of our dreams is the “Black Pastrami Reuben,” juicy, thinly cut pastrami piled high on grilled rye bread with warm sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese. Who needs New York? Bonus: seasoned, efficient, no nonsense waitresses who seem to know what you want even when you don’t. For example, a waitress was recently overheard telling an indecisive regular, “Get the white fish salad. You'll like that.” And so he did.
Like so many of the area’s most beloved restaurants, Carnival is in a mini mall, along with a dance studio and neighborhood bar. The Lebanese restaurant won’t win any beauty awards, though a makeover with colorful painted landscapes is an improvement. But who cares when you can get a gigantic mixed appetizer plate, enough to feed a family of four, for less than $13. It comes with hummus, tabbouli (theirs is the parsley heavy rather than grain heavy version), falafel and our favorite, baba ghanouj. You’re going to want some of their soulful lentil soup too and maybe a couple skewers of kafta kabab, made with seasoned ground lamb and beef, served over tender rice.
The Pico-Fairfax neighborhood might be the heart of the LA Jewish community. But if you want our closest version of Little Israel, you’ll want to check out a stretch of Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana. Here, you’ll find several restaurants where the first language is Hebrew. Hummus Bar is our favorite of the bunch, in no small part because of the fresh laffa they make to order. Laffa is like pita bread on steroids. It’s as big as a regular pizza and arrives at the table straight out of the oven, with a slightly charred bottom and soft chewy edges. And it goes great with the supple hummus they serve with various accompaniments. Our picks: it’s a tie between the mushroom and toasted pine nut version. You can also get various skewers and juicy chicken shwarma. On big game days (and by game we mean soccer), the atmosphere is pure adrenaline as Israeli expats gather round the big screens to cheer their favorite team.
“Like crack” is the apt description for the crispy rice topped with spicy tuna at Katsu-Ya. Indeed, there’s a reason just about every table at the original Studio City location orders this dish. The combination of spicy fresh tuna and golden, crunchy edged rice is ridiculously good. And just about all other versions pale in comparison. Reservations can be hard to come by, but the vibe is festive and the fish quality is excellent. Be sure to order one or two items from the list of specialty rolls. Crunchy popcorn shrimp atop soy paper wrapped spicy tuna is ridiculously good, no matter how you eat it. Two more things we love: they employ several female sushi chefs and they are very nice to kids. Note there is also an Encino location.
Kiwami is like the more polished version of Katsuya, its big sibling a few blocks to the east. The quality of fish here is superb and it’s a tad easier to score a reservation. Kiwami also serves one of our favorite lunches in the city: the Kiwami Tray. There’s a perfect crab roll wrapped in sesame flecked soy paper, four pieces of spicy tuna on crispy rice, a dish of melting albacore sashimi topped with frizzled crispy onions, another dish of yellowtail in bright, oniony ponzu sauce topped with jalapeño and lastly, two pieces of white fish wrapped around crab and avocado and served with a petite seaweed salad. Twenty bucks deliciously spent. Kiwami is also where the man behind the empire, Katsuya Uechi, does omakase. Advanced reservations required.
Leave your pretensions at the door. This year and a half old spot is chill, more jeans than little black dress. Waitresses are friendly. And it all feels very familial. The décor might be characterized as rustic speakeasy meets urban loft, with lots of caramel colored weathered wood along with exposed ductwork and a wall of New York style subway tiles. Park with friends at the big L shaped bar or grab a table and choose from some 20 beers on tap, the bulk from California. Fish and chips made with lightly battered red snapper is our first choice on the “Main Grub” menu with the Peasant Burger (fried egg included) a close second. And because this is the valley, where seemingly every resident has kids, surprise, they have plenty of high chairs on hand.
We were big fans of Michael Young’s cooking when he headed up the kitchen at Silverlake’s now shuttered Domenico. Young has stepped out on his own with Ombra, a smart, sophisticated Italian that's popular with the nearby studio crowd. Much of the Domenico staff has joined him at the warm, nearly year-old restaurant. Pastas are dreamy. We love the option at dinner time to try several without having to order full servings. Be sure the homemade cavatelli is among them. Based on one of Young’s chef uncle’s recipes, it features chubby little toothsome shells, homemade natch, in a light tomato sauce with lots of sweet crab and swatches of arugula. Young started his career as pastry chef for Drago, so save room for dessert.
If everyone could cook brussels sprouts like chef Adam Horton, the world would surely eat their vegetables and then some. He works his magic with fish sauce, sugar and lime and roasts the sprouts until they’re crisp and caramelized, sweet as candy. Horton, one of many talented former Saddle Peak Lodge chefs cooking in Los Angeles, also has a sure hand with pasta and meat. Try his Northern Thai Style Street Noodles in a rich, bold curry for a wallop of flavor. He’s got a looker of a setting in which to showcase his food. In fact, Raphael might be the San Fernando Valley’s swankiest dining room. But don’t let that scare you off. Snooty it ain’t and there’s a spacious lounge for more casual tete a tetes.
PETA members beware: those taxidermy heads on the dining room wall might be distracting, to say the least. But for everyone else, Saddle Peak Lodge is one of those Los Angeles restaurants you must visit at least once. And not just for the cozy, hunting lodge interior or the delightful patio with babbling brook. Some seriously talented chefs have toiled in the kitchen here, including Josie LeBalch, Warren Schwartz and Adam Horton. Now it’s Chris Kufek, a 20 something from nearby West Hills who rose through the ranks and took the helm here about a year ago. In the spring, Kufek added olive oil poached loup de mer to the menu, which he pairs with fresh peas and fava beans. For those wanting something a bit more assertive or intent on drinking a big red, there’s sliced duck breast with textbook crispy skin finished with ‘chocolate coffee soil.’ It works. Really well.
Bill & Hiroko’s
14742 Oxnard St., Van Nuys, 818.785.4086
Black Market Liquor Bar
11915 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, 818.446.2533
13539 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, 818.906.7427
19565 Parthenia St., Northridge, 818.886.5679
4356 Woodman Ave., Sherman Oaks, 818.784.3469
Hummus Bar & Grill
18743 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, 818.344.6606
11680 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, 818.985.6976
11920 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, 818.763.3910
The Local Peasant
14058 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, 818.501.0234
3737 Cahuenga Blvd., Studio City, 818.985.7337