My plan was to write one article about Japanese restaurants, one about Korean, one about Chinese, and one about mixed-Asian restaurants. So I asked my Korean golf partner, Mr. Kim, “What’s the best Korean restaurant on the Westside?”
He hesitated, like he does before each putt. He continued to think for a while. Then he replied, “I don’t think there is a good Korean restaurant on the Westside.” He said there might be one around Sawtelle Boulevard, but nothing of consequence.
That made writing about a Korean restaurant on the Westside somewhat speculative. But he didn’t know about the Wharo Korean BBQ on Lincoln Boulevard just south of Washington Boulevard. That’s a pretty good family-run Korean restaurant with a pleasant modern décor. The service is excellent and they have the BBQ grills in the tables. The main courses are accompanied by six little dishes of vegetables, including kimchi, one of the most healthy dishes in the world.
You have to go into the Korean part of town to really find the best Korean restaurants. There are so many good ones there that it hardly pays to try to list them. A favorite is the “corner” in an almost deserted shopping center one block south of the old Times building around the 5000 block of Wilshire Boulevard. It’s not easy to describe the location because they don’t have any signage in English, and there is no address showing.
We go to a number of good ones on Western Avenue near Wilshire (one in particular on the north west corner of Wilshire and Western, about 30 feet to the north).
When I was next with a Chinese friend I asked, “What’s the best Chinese restaurant on the Westside?” He too hesitated. “Would you say that Sepulveda is on the Westside?” he asked. I knew he was thinking about Hop Woo, but I had to say “no,” Sepulveda is on the other side of the 405 Freeway.
It’s not easy to find a really good Chinese restaurant on the Westside. We go some Sunday mornings for dim sum at the Palace on Wilshire and Barrington. And I love the Peking duck at Hop Woo. When I have a group together we sometimes go to Hop Li on Santa Monica Boulevard.
But the great Chinese restaurants are out of the area. Ever look up “Chinese restaurants Santa Monica” on Yelp? Melisse is listed, along with Blue Plate Oysterette — clearly not Chinese restaurants. I don’t know why, but it suggests a lack of Chinese restaurants in the area.
Then I thought about Vietnamese cuisine, and there I did know my favorite: the Saigon on Wilshire. They have great authentic soups, and a wonderful plate of very thin crepes with a selection of meats to roll up in them yourself. It’s not only very tasty, but a lot of fun.
Finally I looked up Japanese restaurants on the web and realized that my editor would never give me enough space to write about them. It seems like hundreds are listed. How could I decide which to write about? As we all know, Japanese cuisine has overtaken the Asian restaurant market. Sushi is everywhere, second only to Italian food.
There are dozens of Sushi bars within Santa Monica, and a number other regional Japanese specialty houses. Below are the ones I frequent most often, many times with my son Spencer who lived in Japan for 12 years and knows a lot about food from cooking courses in Paris and a brief time as an assistant chef.
One way to look at the Japanese restaurant sector is to divide it into three sections — takeout, standard quality, and very expensive “experience” restaurants.
The only takeout Japanese food I eat is from Gelson’s in Pacific Palisades. It’s not great, but it’s a good, fast snack food when I don’t feel like cooking or going out. I know it’s fresh when I buy it because I watch the guy make it.
I’m getting burned out on the $150 to $200 a person high-end Japanese restaurants. I’ve already reviewed the top three in prior articles. But if I do decide to take someone out for a special event my first choice would be Sushi Zo. They don’t go too crazy-weird, and the preparations are interesting and very fresh so that it’s almost worth the price.
The two sushi restaurants we frequent most often are the Sasabune Express in Pacific Palisades (bring your own sake) with top quality fish at incredibly low prices, and the Hikari Sake House, a Korean-owned busy little spot on the corner of Santa Monica and Fourth Street, which boasts that it sells more Asahi beer than any restaurant in Los Angeles.
We sometimes go to Noma, on Wilshire and 20th Street. The tempura is pretty good and they have a few other hot dishes that are well made. Their sushi bar is OK, and very popular with the locals.
There are a number of good eclectic Asian restaurants around the Westside. Monsoon on the Third Street Promenade can be quite good. And Buddha’s Belly in Downtown has some surprisingly good dishes at reasonable prices.
But the best of all is still Chinois On Main, which has been serving Wolfgang Puck’s version of Chinese food for over 20 years.
Asian food has heavily influenced American cuisine. Many top-notch restaurants now have some Asian dishes on their menus, such as seared tuna salads, and even raw marinated fish. But for the real thing I think you have to gas up your car and go to that part of town where the real people from the country live.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at email@example.com.
If you go
Hikari Sake House
401 Santa Monica Blvd.
Santa Monica, Calif.
A traditional “Japanese drinking house” specializing in sushi rolls.
2031 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, Calif.
A standard fare, traditional sushi bar with booths and a wide selection of dishes.
970 Monument St.
Pacific Palisades, Calif.
A small space, a small menu, no alcoholic beverages, but top quality Japanese foods at incredibly low prices. Great for takeout.
9824 National Blvd.
One of the top Japanese sushi bars in town. Talking is discouraged as it distracts from the experience. Bring gold bars to pay the check.
Chinois on Main
2709 Main St.
Santa Monica, Calif.
One of the great restaurants in Los Angeles; expensive, unique, and very loud.
11901 Santa Monica Blvd.
A traditional old-fashioned Chinese restaurant with lots of space and a big menu.
11611 Santa Monica Blvd.
An experience in real ethnic Vietnamese food. No alcohol; try the coconut juice instead.
11110 W. Olympic Blvd.
Almost like being in China, with few waiters who speak English. The best Peking duck in town, and small lobster tails for $12.
Wharo Korean BBQ
4029 Lincoln blvd.
Marina del Rey, Calif.
Santa Monica 90401
1212 Third Street Promenade
Santa Monica, Calif.
Eclectic Asian-fusion dishes with something for everyone. Good for people watching on the promenade.
11701 Wilshire Blvd.
Not the best dim sum, but the best on the Westside. A full menu of traditional Chinese food. Very crowded on Sunday mornings.