Surprising Pacific Rim flavors at California eateries

By Frank Whitman

Our arrival in Los Angeles coincided with the arrival of the latest atmospheric river. In town for a wedding, we were treated to three drenching days – a rarity in any other year, but a distressingly regular scenario in 2023. 

The only place to get some walking exercise was indoors, cruising the wide, stylish corridors of the nearby Northridge Fashion Center Mall.  Amid the trendy retailers, we discovered a host of new-to-us food options. with a Pacific Rim influence seldom seen on the East Coast. 

To be sure, we enjoy a diverse range of ethnic foods in our area. There’s plenty of Central and South American options plus lots of Asian along with representation from the old-world.

But a stroll in the Mall took us past Chan’s Mongolian Grill, Lilian’s Filipino, Kebab Lab, Boba Square Bar Cafe, Boule De Pain, It’s Churro, and Potato Corner –  enough exotic flavors to feed us for days.

At Chan’s Mongolian Grill meat, vegetables and fresh ingredients are chosen from the self-service line and handed over to the cook who sizzles it up on the Grill’s large iron disk.  Hot and fresh-cooked, it’s only $16 for lunch or $20 for dinner. 

Lilian’s Filipino’s motto is, “KAIN NA TAYO! (LET’S EAT!)”  The multi-unit restaurant started in a local car wash (yes, car wash) and developed a loyal following for their exotic-sounding food like Mongo Hopias (filled buns), Baboy Hopias and Ube Hopias as well as delicious sweets like Cassava Cakes, Bibingkang Kalamay, Espasol and their signature Halo-Halo (a refreshing dessert made of shaved ice, milk and various fruits.)  Aromatic garlic-fried rice is topped with a selection of cured meats. 

At the Kebab Lab organic ingredients and Halal meats are crafted into freshly-made middle-eastern favorites and kebabs – chicken, beef and Lule (a ground meat blend) and the cultural crossover cheeseburger kebob.

For a refreshing bubble tea or just-brewed coffee, the Boba Square Bar Cafe is an easy stop. Just up the aisle, get a sweet or croissant to have with it at Boule De Pain.  This outpost of the LA regional bakery also serves up authentic and delicious cakes, bread, and classic French pastries.

The irresistible sticks of sugar-sprinkled fried dough called churros are another sweet stop at the mall.  It’s Churro stacks up the sticks that look like unwound doughnuts and offers them with an array of dipping sauces. 

Are you hungry yet?

Straight, curley, or tater-totted, the fries at Potato Corner are fan favorites for their patented seasonings including BBQ, cheddar, garlic and even cinnamon sugar. The company, (new to me) with over 1000 locations world wide has nailed down the crisp, irresistible french fry. 

The mall isn’t the only place with this level of culinary diversity.  Los Angeles is a gold mine of top-notch ethnic food.  While staying with our son, we had a chance to sample some of his favorites.

Bánh mì, baguette sandwiches filled with a mashup of Asian and French ingredients, is a colonial legacy of France in Vietnam.   A takeout meal from Bun Me in Northridge started with vegetarian summer rolls and crisp shrimp spring rolls and then moved on to the sandwiches – a cultural collision of crisp baguette filled with pâté, pork roll and char siu pork garnished with pickled carrots, diakon and jalapeños. 

Tacos divvied up for sharing

Tacos are everywhere in Southern California, but not always as creative as at Home State Tacos in Pasadena.  There the tacos might be named for the restaurant’s favorite bands including Chicano Batman or Tijuana Panther.  Others carry colorful monikers like Don’t Mess With Texas or simply Potato. While not a taco, Frito Pie in a Bag is a perennial favorite. Check the website for detailed descriptions. 

In Northridge, there’s even a vast Korean supermarket with a surprisingly good French bakery tucked in one corner. 

Fortunately, the “river” dried up a few days before the outdoor wedding. The beautiful ceremony and lavish reception went off without a hitch under the live oaks and star-flecked skies that are usually dependable in California – a festive end to a week of exciting new flavors.