New Year’s Eve dining in the San Fernando Valley – Daily News

My history of New Year’s Eve celebrations has run pretty much from sad to sorrowful.

Growing up in New York City, I actually went to Times Square many years ago — long before they started corralling the celebrants for hours on end, forcing them to wear adult diapers. My memory of it was that it was cold … bone-chilling cold.

After the ball descended, the assembled masses all ran for the subway entrances. The New York subway system had, thoughtfully, gone on a post-midnight schedule. Meaning that several hundred thousand of us were clustered on the edge of the platforms, praying for a train — and that no one would push us off.

Then, there was the time I was invited to a gala dinner at a friend’s house — only to discover the gala dinner consisted of bags of chips and cans of onion dip, with Lawrence Welk playing on the TV, and a lot of pitiful characters sitting on couches, trying to stay awake.

There was the meal at a favorite Italian restaurant, where I discovered, too late, that what was being served was a meal consisting of two pasta entrées, a green salad, and some sort of store-bought chocolate cake for dessert. I think the meal included a split of champagne. That’s half a bottle, for two persons. It was bad champagne. And they charged too much for it.

After moving to the West Coast, to simplify New Year’s Eve, I decided to stay on East Coast time the night of Dec. 31. This allowed me to celebrate early, and then go to sleep whenever I wanted. And to get up early enough for the Rose Parade, if I wanted to.

After all these years, there’s been only one New Year’s Eve that stands out as an unmitigated triumph — and it involved going into a world where Dec. 31 is not New Year’s Eve. I organized a crowd to go to one of the sprawling Chinese seafood restaurants of Monterey Park for an early evening banquet. It was quite the experience.

Getting off at the Atlantic Avenue exit, just after 6 p.m., I found myself stuck in a traffic jam, caused by police running a sobriety check. At 6 o’clock? The Chinese New Year wasn’t coming up for another month or more, so this was just another night. Except that the larger hall of the restaurant had been taken over by what I was told was a Chinese high school reunion. There were hundreds of celebrants. There were speeches and songs — all in Chinese. There were acrobatic acts. Prizes were awarded. And I sat in an adjacent room, eating shrimp and lobster, and having a very good time.

I notably remember bringing my own wine, and asking if there was a corkage fee. I was told, yes, $10. Per bottle, I asked? No, I was told — for the table, for the evening. What’s not to love? I had a great meal — and was home early enough to catch the ball coming down in Times Square.

I’ve repeated it many times in the years since. A Chinese restaurant New Year’s Eve on Dec. 31 has always been a joy. And reasonably priced, too. (I’ve also varied the feeds with meals at Thai restaurants, Filipino spots, Vietnamese places; Persian, Lebanese and Indian cafes; Korean barbecues, even the occasional Cambodian eatery, of which we have precious few! The prices are always great!

We bring our own fun with us, which does not include funny hats and noisemakers! These days, if you’re at Times Square, you’re locked in till after midnight. How is that fun? But meals at the following restaurants are always a joy — how could it be otherwise?

Chinese dumplings (and more)

The original Din Tai Fung, in Taipei, isn’t exactly a shack on a backstreet. But it is a storefront in a gray, formless building, notable for having a constant and relentless crowd in front.

The original Din Tai Fung here in Southern California was in a U-shaped mini-mall on Baldwin Avenue in Arcadia, eventually joined by a second branch virtually next door. (There are two major mall locations in Orange County as well.) Not funky — but not elegant either.

And then, something unexpected started happening: Din Tai Fung got malled. Big malled, shopping center malled. And in the process, it got pretty darned fine. The first mall location was right here, in the Americana at Brand (177 Caruso Ave., Glendale; 818-551-5561, www.dintaifungusa.com).

Growing up in New York’s Chinatown, I demand a certain amount of rough and tumble from my noodle and dumpling houses. So I do find the niceness of the mall Din Tai Fungs a bit disconcerting. But then, those aesthetic considerations fade away when the first order of soup-filled xiao long bao hit the table in a bamboo steamer basket. The aroma, the visual, the first bite — heck, the place could look like Spago, and I’d be happy.

Though there may be a wait for a seat, there’s no wait for the food, which emerges from the kitchen at Roadrunner cartoon speed. The dumplings emerge in bamboo steamers, piled comically high. The soup dumplings come packed with pork, snow crab and truffles, in various combinations. The buns are puffy and sweet, perfect steamed buns, filled with pork, veggies, red beans, sesame and sweet taro; I lean toward the savory over the sweet, but that’s me.

There’s a pantheon of steamed dumplings as well, with a world of wonderful fillings, and a bite that dazzles — kimchi and pork anyone? Unlike some of the smaller dumpling joints, there’s a good deal more here. The seaweed and bean curd in vinegar is an essential cold appetizer, as is the pungent cucumber salad. And the soy noodle salad and the wood ear mushrooms in vinegar — wondrous!

There are seven plates of greens — string beans, kale, bok choy and such, which need to be part of the meal. I tend not to order the soups, since they take up room in my stomach I’d rather fill with dumplings. Or with the noodles with sesame sauce. I’m sure the desserts are very good — but after all that goodness, red bean and sweet taro xiao long bao doesn’t call to me. But then, this is a mall — the dessert options are many. Even on New Year’s Eve.

Thai (part one)

You eat in enough Thai restaurants, you come to expect certain dishes, done in a certain way, not all of which are good. You expect chicken satay to be a bit stringy, a bit dry, with a peanut sauce that’s separated into oil and solids. You expect pad Thai to be cooked to the point where the noodles are beginning to fall to pieces. You expect barbecue chicken to be a desiccated bird, saved only by a sweet chili sauce that comes in a little plastic container. All of which makes Lum Ka Naad (8910 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, 818-882-3028; 17644 Ventura Blvd., Encino, 818-616-2338; www.lumkanaad.com), a remarkable revelation of a restaurant.

Not unlike the Siamese restaurants of Thai Town, a fairly dismal restaurant row that meanders along Hollywood Boulevard from Western to Vermont on the east side of Hollywood, the food at Lum Ka Naad has the funk and flavor of a backstreet in Bangkok. The food tastes like the real deal. The service has the sort of abrupt in-a-hurry-ness that I’ve come to expect of genuine ethnic experiences. And the next day, the leftovers are even better than they seemed to have been fresh from the kitchen.

This is a Thai restaurant worth going back to, again and again. With nearly 200 dishes on the menu, you simply have to.

The menu begins with a ramble of 21 appetizers, divided into “Fries,” “From the Grill” and “Served Fresh As It Can Be!” There are wonders throughout. The chicken and beef satay, touchstone dishes at any Thai restaurant, are exceptional — chunky chubbettes of tender meat, with tasty grill marks, served with a perfect peanut sauce that made me wonder, once again, why I’ve never managed to replicate a good peanut sauce at home; is it that difficult? Guess so, because so many restaurant get it wrong. Lum Ka Naad gets it right.

As is often the case in Thai restaurants, you don’t have to wander far from the apps to create a meal that will make your table happy. The prosaic egg roll is as good as it gets, so crispy, with a fine sweet & sour sauce. The fried pork ribs are crazy good — the menu tells us they’re “fermented,” though they may mean “marinated,” in a hot & sour sauce, then splattered with chiles, ginger, lime and cilantro.

If you want your satay hotter than usual, get the Bangkok Sticks on Fire. If you want your beef rarer than usual, go for the Crying Tiger. And there’s a lovely dish of shrimp marinated in garlic and chiles, called Naked Mermaid. The name alone makes it worth ordering.

The menu continues with Curries, Noodles (divvied into Noodle Soup and Pan-Fried Noodles, where we find not just pad Thai, but also Thai spaghetti, and unexpectedly yaki-soba), Fried Rice, Salad (such good chicken larb), Seafood, Soups (Hot & Spicy, and Not Spicy), Sautéed, Vegetable Lovers, Rice, Relish/Dipping Sauces (wither dwells some seriously spicy creations), Asian Specialties — and a pair of bifurcated categories: Specialty Northern Cuisine, and Specialty Southern Cuisine, where we find a virtual Baedeker of Thailand’s cuisine.

There are 17 dishes from the north, on the border with Laos — exotica like jackfruit salad, elephant ear plant soup with fish, and a steamed banana leaf basket filled with chicken, Thai eggplant, curry paste and sweet rice powder.

The dishes from the South come with a warning that “all items in this category are considered ‘too spicy’ for average Americans.” Take the warning seriously. The spicy curry with “sator” peas (which grow on a tree), shrimp and ground pork sizzles. The South Sea spice dried curry has enough ingredients in it to count as a Oaxacan mole.

Dessert may be essential — fried banana, coconut ice cream, sweet sticky rice with mango.

Thai (part two)

Looking at the very long menu at the much-loved Sri Siam Café (12843 Vanowen St., North Hollywood; 818-982-6161, www.srisiamcafe.com) — a brightly lit, neat-as-a-pin Thai eatery in a Central Valley mini-mall — there are at least two sections worthy of a second look, even a double take. There’s one headed “Specials,” the other “Chef Specials” — a tad redundant, which is not unusual. And that’s where you find dishes like the wonderful Crispy Rice Salad, which is a bit like the crispy noodle dish mee krob, only not sticky sweet, and made with crispy rice instead, along with Thai sour sausage (which is to say, not “sweet sausage”), ginger, scallions, ground chicken larb, peanuts, mint leaves and a chili lime sauce, that pulls the whole dish together into one cohesive, and very tasty whole.

Consider as well the Barbecue Eggplant Salad. Oddly, the eggplant has been skinned, for barbecued eggplant needs its skin to hold it together. But that said, it has a good, smoky flavor, the eggplant topped with more of the ground chicken the kitchen seems so fond of, along with big chunky shrimp, in a tangy lime dressing — a very good dish, though I’m not sure if it’s so much a salad as a vegetable side dish. Whatever. It’s a variation not often found.

Then, there’s the Spicy Grilled Salad, made with shredded apple; the Hoy-Tord, a crispy mussel pancake with a sweet chili sauce; the O-Lou, a crispy shrimp pancake; the Spicy Ribs, bit chunks of meat, with a hint of pickling spice; the Shrimp Paste Chili Dip Fried Rice with Fried Mackerel — and when was the last time, if ever, you saw mackerel in a Thai dish? And look, there’s mackerel again in the Miang Pla Too, with lemongrass in that good chili lime sauce.

There’s so much more — the menu abounds with dishes that make you wish you had come with more people. And which might make you wonder how the single server, at least on one particular night, managed to work a nearly full restaurant without losing her composure. But she didn’t. Nor did I. Though I did feel a bit better after she suggested I go to the package store next door if I craved a beer with my food. Sipping a beer is so much more satisfying than a glass of water.

There are 114 dishes on the menu at Sri Siam, though the count goes up when you consider that many involve a choice of meat. And for those who want to follow the straight and narrow, the tried and true, it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

The chicken satay is properly moist, with one of the better peanut sauces I’ve encountered, and a cucumber salad that’s not the usual throwaway dish — it’s made with large chunks of cuke that turn it into a side dish, and not just a relish.

The curry selection takes you on a jolly journey through the numerous lands of curry — Panang red, Thai yellow, Gaeng Ped red, green with lots of basil, roasted duck in red curry, even a spicy and sour curry (which once again means not sweet).

If you’ve never had the fried jerky — one of the many good preps to come from the north of Thailand — this is a fine place to give it a run, either beef or pork, and really hard to say which is better, though the chili sauce that comes with it makes the dish that much better, whichever meat you choose.

My daughter, an aficionado of pad see ew, rates this one as one of the best. And she says the same of the mango sticky rice. I raised her well.

Vietnamese

As my diet has evolved over the years, much like master chef/humanitarian Jose Andres, I’ve found my eating moving more toward the happy world of vegetables. This is not to say I’m a vegetarian (or a vegan). I’ve just shifted from perceiving meals as a hunk of meat, with veggies as a sidekick…to a meal where vegetables star…and meat makes a cameo appearance.

And when I say meat, I mostly mean beef — the “red meat” that’s become a line in the sand for would-be healthy diners. Fish and chicken are our friends. But vegetables are our best friends.

And then, I go to a place like Vinh Loi Tofu (18625 Sherman Way, Reseda; 818-996-9779, www.vinhloitofu.com), a tofu-based vegan Vietnamese, and I have to confront the next level of my relationship with meat and vegetables. One must respect what they do at Vinh Loi. One must also ask if tofu is a vegetable? Well, of course it is. But it’s been transformed from soy beans (our much-loved edamame) to soy milk to soy curds to prepared tofu in dishes. It’s a Franken-vegetable.

I’m not sure I’ll ever love it. I’ll eat it, and often quite happily. Often in one of those palate-destroying Szechuan dishes, flavored with fiery peppers and sautéed pork, where the tofu is hidden under a mountain of extreme flavors. At Vinh Loi, the tofu is always…tofu. Even in a stir-fry, it’s tofu. And since the cooking is decidedly subtle, the tofu isn’t hidden. And so…tofu is what we go here for. Tofu…and a meal that represents, as the menu says, “A better way of life.”

What I prefer to focus on is the line, found on the website, encouraging us to “Indulge in authentic, flavorful Southeast Asian Cuisine prepared from fresh ingredients and bold spices.” Which is what Vinh Loi is very good at.

Putting aside my mixed opinions on tofu in particular, and vegan meat substitutes in general, this is fine chow, a small selection of dishes, drawn from the extensive world of Vietnamese (and to a lesser degree, Thai) cooking. The menu is about as minimalist as a Vietnamese menu ever is. Rather than dozens of pho noodle soup variations, each with a different combination of meat, there’s just one — the Ironman Pho (love the name!), a vegetable broth, with rice noodles, tofu and “beef” slices, topped with onions (both white and green), cilantro, beansprouts, basil, lime and jalapeño.

It’s one of five soups on the menu, a very busy section — a lemongrass and chili soup called Kevin #1, a Curry Soup (my personal favorite), a noodle-less vegetable soup, and a wheat noodle ramen soup, which comes with fried shallots, an unexpectedly elegant touch.

The appetizers lean toward the rolls, also five of them, one of which was made with “ham,” another with “beef,” and a third with “chicken” that’s got a kind of spongy texture. It’s improved by the good peanut sauce that comes with all the rolls. Peanut sauce is happily vegan, though it does open up a world of allergies. Which is why there’s a section on the menu headed “Peanut Allergies” — detailing the availability of coconut sauce, sesame soy sauce, gluten-free soy, and something called VL Dressing — for those who can’t eat peanuts. So many dietary hoops to jump through there — vegan and peanut-free and gluten-free.

And the concern continues into the “Dry Noodles,” where we find that those with a wheat/gluten allergy can substitute gluten-free noodles, clear mung bean noodles, rice noodles or shredded zucchini, along with a gluten-free sauce. Dining out these days can be so tricky!

And for those on an old-fashioned diet, there are salads as well, where the vegetables are clearly vegetables. Though you do have a choice of various vegan meats to go in the salads. I chose a meat to taste it. But I put it on the side, and stuck with the salad. It tasted fresh and real. It hadn’t been manipulated. For me, it defines “A better way of life.” A vegetable that’s just…a vegetable. And a good way…to begin a new year.

Lebanese

At Carnival (4356 Woodman Ave., Sherman Oaks; 818-784-3469, www.carnivalrest.com), as at most Middle Eastern eateries, ordering chow for the table is both easy and really the way to go. The notion of sitting there, hunched over your kebabs, while the rest of the table passes around baba ghanoush and grape leaves, is pretty much ludicrous.

Carnival certainly makes ordering for the table more than easy. First of all, you probably can’t go wrong with the menu here — an extensive collection of the greatest hits of Lebanese cooking, with many of the dishes collected into convenient combination plates.

For the sake of newcomers (there must be a few out there!), there’s an appetizer combo of hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouli and falafel, served, of course, with lots of warm pita bread — a perfect appetizer for both the neophyte and the native.

Simply speaking (for those newbies), hummus is made from garbanzo beans and baba ghanoush from eggplant, tabouli is bulghur wheat with tomatoes and mint, and falafel balls are a fried cousin of hummus.

Be sure to add on the grilled veggie platter (there’s a fried veggie platter as well) — the vegetables are flavored with olive oil and herbs, beautifully grilled. It’s a reminder that this really is one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.

I always order the fattoush salad, simply because I’ve always liked fattoush — a kitchen sink salad built around the crunch of toasted pita chips.

One can dig into the sandwiches, of which there are nine — including a fantastic beef and lamb pita burger, easily one of the best burgers in town, flavored richly with parsley and onions. Does that even properly count as a burger? (The Carnival Burger is topped with coleslaw, and served on a sesame bun, a classic burger, though a bit of an outlier on the menu.) But really, what’s best is the Carnival Combination of chicken, lamb and ground kafta, charbroiled and served with rice or fries, more pita bread and wonderful pickled veggies. Expect to take lots home to eat while watching the Rose Parade.

Not taken home are the desserts — a sublime baklava, flavored with homemade rosewater syrup. And not just homemade, but “Mamma’s Homemade”! There’s also a pudding called ashtalia, a cream of wheat dessert called namoura, and a baked cheese dessert called knafeh. The coffee — “Arabic coffee,” says the menu — is thick and strong and coats the tongue. It’s New Year’s Eve. Strong Arabic coffee will wake you up. And you probably won’t go to sleep till morning.

Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected]

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