By Richard Foss, Cuisine and Culture Writer
Many years ago I was on the stage crew for one of the worst productions of West Side Story ever to stagger in front of an audience. The leading man sang beautifully but delivered his lines like a newscaster, his love interest couldn’t hit the high notes but made up for it with volume, and the dance numbers were about as organized as a real street fight rather than a stylized version of one. The stage crew watched the mayhem in a state of drunken sadness and, as crew often does, made up parodies of all the songs. The only one that sticks in my head was one that one of the crew made up about his hometown, sung to the tune of Maria. It began,
Lomita, I just saw a town called Lomita.
And only now I see, how boring a small
town can be…
That was pretty hilarious to us, and 40 years ago it was even pretty accurate. Fast forward to now, and Lomita is actually an interesting town, particularly if you like Asian restaurants. There are good Korean, Thai, regional Chinese and Japanese standouts, as well as one delightful anomaly that offers upscale Korean-inflected fusion items from all over the globe. Their hours are odd too — they are open only for breakfast and lunch and not on Sundays, which means they’re closed during the times most people want to try adventurous food.
This strategy is explained by the fact that the restaurant operation is an offshoot of a catering kitchen, and is partly a way that event planners can try before they buy. That’s also why the restaurant is named Bites and Bashes, which otherwise sounds like an injury report rather than a cafe.
My first visit was with the chef of an upscale restaurant group, with whom I occasionally try particularly promising new restaurants. He studied the eclectic menu and said, “These people are all over the place, but in an interesting way.” He was right, in that even though the menu was fairly short there were consistent ideas about how to creatively interpret Mediterranean, Korean and American traditions. Some of these sparked questions: Would chicken cacciatore with penne be improved by adding fennel sausage? What would a Philly cheesesteak taste like if made with Korean bulgogi beef, and why had nobody tried it before? And why is this pasta with cheese and tomato called telephono style, when no actual telephones were used in the recipe? We didn’t learn the answer to all of these questions, but in multiple visits I managed to sample a fair percentage of the menu.
The only salad we tried was the pleasantly eccentric version of an Asian chicken salad, which mixed the romaine and bird bits with watermelon radish, wonton crisps, almonds, julienned carrots and green onions in a lively sesame vinaigrette. I’m used to “Chinese” chicken salads with a sweet dressing that overwhelms other ingredients, but the sesame nuttiness of this one brought out flavors in the greens and tied everything together. I started with low expectations and wondered why the chef had ordered it, but it was a novel version of a standard item.
On that same visit, we tried their version of a falafel sandwich, which was a burger-like patty served with beet aioli, lettuce and pickled carrots on a French roll. The flavor combination was great, like a falafel crossed with a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, but they missed one important detail — part of the joy of eating falafel is the texture, that wonderful crunch with a fragrant, moist interior and you just can’t get that with a big patty. If this had been several small ones, it would have been Arabic-Southeast Asian fusion nirvana, but it was a near miss. It came with some good mild Korean-style pickled vegetables and we spent an extra three bucks for “crack fries” on the side. Topping crisp fries with chili aioli, parmesan and scallions was a good idea and I was glad the portion wasn’t larger, because I would have kept eating them until they were gone no matter how many were there.
On other visits I tried that Korean-style cheesesteak and the Moroccan-style chicken, accompanying one with matcha lemonade and the other with (and I shudder to type this) a Fruity Pebbles® latte. I didn’t truly expect to like the latte, but for scientific purposes, I had to give it a chance. It is a coffee drink for people who don’t like coffee, and I do. My server took one look at my face after I tasted it and offered to replace it with something else. The something elses here include salted caramel latte, lavender latte and matcha latte, but I decided I had done enough experimenting for the day. I might have had a cocktail, because they have a liquor license, but it was the middle of the day and I had a lot of driving to do. Their regular espresso is good, too.
I enjoyed the matcha lemonade much more, though like anything made with matcha it looked like swamp water. The grassy flavor of the South American herb tea was unexpectedly good with lemonade, and it’s something I’d happily have again.
As for the meals, the Korean cheesesteak was only slightly different than the standard version, but in a good way. The sesame, soy, garlic and delicate pepper in bulgogi beef is a step up from the standard grilled steak and it worked very nicely with the mild provolone cheese. (If you’re a cheesesteak purist you probably want mozzarella, but if that’s the case, you shouldn’t be ordering a cheesesteak here anyway. Or perhaps you should and discover that the world is bigger than you had imagined.)
The biggest surprise was the Moroccan chicken because the flavors were unerringly true to the original. The two grilled boneless thighs had been cooked with olives and a fragrant sauce of North African spices, pickled raisins and cipollini onions topped with frisee, tomato and edible flowers. It was served over saffron rice and the portion was a big enough that I took almost half home for the next day’s lunch. It is sitting in my refrigerator as I write this and I can hardly wait.
The mother and daughter team behind Bites and Bashes have a quirky genius about flavors and presentations. I wish they were open later because I would like to bring friends who would find their current hours difficult. It’s my new favorite restaurant in Lomita, a town that has blossomed like one of the flowers that decorate so many dishes here.
Bites and Bashes is at 25600 Narbonne Ave. Open daily except Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Street parking only, some vegetarian and vegan items.
Details: (310) 530-1030; www.bitesandbashes.com