Vineland Ave. and Burbank Blvd. in North Hollywood is a famous intersection, at least to some. The perfectly silly Circus Liquor is there, with its overbearing polka dotted clown sign lording it over everything else in sight. Of course, that sign (and its parking lot) gained a bit of notoriety in the mid-’90s as the spot where Alicia Silverstone’s character in Clueless was mugged.
Nowadays, you’ll find a lot more than just Circus Liquors at Vineland and Burbank. For one, there’s a big brown strip mall on the northwestern corner, with a Fatburger right up front, beckoning in the hungry and disoriented. There are further delights inside the B-V Shopping Center, like a Middle Eastern borek shop with just a single table, some fantastic Lebanese food and a Korean barbecue/noodle/sushi shop, all rolled into one.
Circus Liquor’s Valley-famous signage will always rule this intersection, but peek around the corners of the adjacent strip mall, and you might find some pretty damn good eats there too.
This week’s Strip Mall Rat is a double-header. Well, sort of. See, there’s this little cluster of strip malls on Slauson, just west of Crenshaw Blvd. in South Los Angeles. Two places to eat on one side of the street, and two more places to eat on the other. One — with a Woody’s Bar-B-Que and dinky fish fry place — is a true strip mall. There’s parking, everything’s connected and there’s even a little pet store attached to the far end. Makes you wonder where the fish fry place gets their fish.
And across the street is Hungry Harold’s, a window walk-up spot serving burgers and hot dogs that just couldn’t be ignored. And then, if you’re going to cross Slauson anyway, you might as well get a doughnut from Slauson Donuts.
Los Angeles strip malls are made for Thai food and burgers. The low ceilings, faded posters and open, smoky kitchens are what give strip mall eateries their unique appeal. The table you’re sitting at probably needs a napkin or two pushed under one leg to balance it out, and there’s a 50-50 chance the place you’re lunching at takes credit cards. These are strip mall staples, and burger shops and pad Thai spots execute them to a T.
Case in point: the strip mall on the north side of Venice Boulevard, just east of Sepulveda. There’s that Howard’s Famous Bacon & Avocado Burgers sign that will always catch your eye, and you can never tell exactly how long the place has been open. A decade? Four decades? Since the Gold Rush? You can also squint to try to catch a glimpse inside of Moo Moo Thai Cafe. That is, unless you remember the old Thai Market that used to occupy the same space. In which case, you may be looking away in disgust.
Last we checked in on the strip malls of Koreatown, there were unfortunately named pizza places, spicy fried chicken wings and a Thai spot with a bus parked inside. This time, we’ve headed south of Wilshire to a strip mall brimming with fresh fish, ramen and perhaps the shadiest dining establishment that’s ever been Strip Mall Ratted on.
Just north of the intersection at Western and Eighth, where Pollo a La Brasa spits Peruvian fire onto its roast chickens, there’s a strip mall where live fish swim precariously close to your table. It is a strip mall where a man from Bangladesh makes Japanese ramen, and where a corner storefront has been serving only one dish, seven hours a day, for 17 years. This is what the strip mall life is like in Koreatown.
Strip malls will catch your eye for all sorts of different reasons. Maybe they sit at a clogged intersection, where you and every other bored commuter have lots of time to take in the scenery. Perhaps there’s a certain food you’re partial to — Indian, say — and you find yourself seeking out the hidden lunch buffet gems as a habit. It could be bright colors, obtrusive architecture or sheer size that draws you to any other strip mall, but at the Clar-Ven Center on the corner of Venice Boulevard and Clarington Avenue, the first thing you’ll notice is the variety.
Each end is stamped with a regional Asian food chain, the first being Miyako Japanese Restaurant and the other a Thai Original BBQ. But in between, you’ll find plates of Oaxacan food, daily Italian dishes and that ever-present Indian buffet. Here’s a look at what you’ll find inside each.
There is a Compton strip mall, not far from Kevin Bludso’s ash-black smokers, where birria de chivo is served. Of course, it’s not hard to find Mexican food in Compton, or Central American food for that matter. And in a long, squat strip mall just off the 710 freeway on Alondra Boulevard, you can find whatever Spanish-speaking delights you might be looking for.
The pupusas and Sinaloan fare could still be considered soul food in a way, but the people and memories attached to those souls are from very far away. Thankfully, those people, their souls and all of the cooking migrated here to Los Angeles. Here’s what’s cooking at the corner of Alondra and Atlantic Avenue.
Not all strip malls are created equal. Some massive operations feature handfuls of possible eateries, from vegan home cooking to coffee beans roasted in-house. Others, like the diminutive strip mall on the corner of Fletcher Drive and the last remaining dregs of Silver Lake Boulevard, don’t even catch your eye at first. But tucked away in this corner strip mall is a Mexican food stop courtesy of the same folks who keep you well-fed in late-night carne asada fries and a desolate Thai place. There’s always a desolate Thai place.
What does it feel like to be considered one of the top taco purveyors in all of Los Angeles? You’d have to ask Armando De La Torre, co-owner of Guisados, the stewed taco phenomenon that’s been growing on LA for a few years now. It’s not hard for curious diners to find the man; just wait long enough at the Boyle Heights outpost and he’ll walk right through the front door. Should you need to pick him out of a crowd, just look for the pepper-haired man sporting a Guisados polo shirt and a large, wide smile.
Waving De La Torre over to your table might be a mistake, though, depending on your tolerance for all things habañero. He likes it spicy (just try the chiles torreados for some fiery-lipped understanding), and you probably won’t make it far into a conversation about the tacos in front of you without receiving a complimentary splash of the housemade habañero salsa. It’s a good thing you’ve got a half-full horchata in front of you.
Back to that plate of tacos. At Guisados, it’s all about savory, thick stewed meats and vegetables that are dolloped onto freshly patted corn tortillas. Maybe you’ll find a thin slice of avocado here, a dusting of toasted seeds there, and plenty of pickled spicy onions to go around, but that’s about it. The stews do the talking at Guisados, though it’s really the menu board itself doing all of the heavy lifting.
The strangest things will bring you out to a strip mall — a GIGANTIC strip mall known as Diamond Hills Plaza — in Diamond Bar. Sometimes it’s a whisper, a notion that somewhere in the great abyss of low-slung restaurants and hidden eateries you can find the flavors you’ve been chasing. In this case, it was the pursuit of great strip mall Indian food.
Now, granted, we’ve seen tandoori chicken and Indian-pizza mashups before on these Strip Mall Rat escapades. But the truly transcendent lunch buffet, the heart-seizing gulab jamun continues to elude. This week, we try Curry India Bistro, some boba and a beef roll, among other things. Needless to say, with the size and scope of the Diamond Hills Plaza, we didn’t even get through half of the restaurants out there.
Los Angeles is a big city, with endless strip mall dining options. So far, we’ve covered mega-sites like the nine stop strip mall on Vine in Hollywood, and a small Marina del Rey mall with big, saucy meatballs, but the city extends far beyond those borders. This week offers a glimpse of a low slung strip mall, just off the main drag (if such a thing exists) in Northridge, deep in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.