It’s all about global street food at Susan Feniger’s new hot spot on Highland Avenue in Hollywood.
Chef Susan Feniger, to state the obvious, is one-half of the Too Hot Tamales and co-founder of a triumvirate of iconic L.A. restaurants: City (rest its soul), an ahead-of-its-time showcase of eclectic international cuisine; Border Grill, contemporary Mexican in Santa Monica and Las Vegas; and Ciudad, the pan-Latin bastion of small plates a few blocks from Disney Hall. Now, on a ho-hum stretch of Highland Avenue just above Melrose, Feniger has opened Street, her first project without longtime partner Mary Sue Milliken. Once again she’s exalting homespun dishes from around the globe — why mess with success? — but this time, working out of a kitchen the size of a taco truck, the focus is on street food.
Loopy black stick figures dance along orange walls on the restaurant’s two-tiered patio, and during a hot midweek lunch hour the place is percolating. While the manager escorts a one-time Spago maîtresse d’ to a table next to TV producer Phil Rosenthal, a TV crew hovers over Feniger, a 5-foot-1-inch package of exuberance whose salt-and-pepper curls dangle from a backward baseball cap.
An irregular line of frosty-pink lipstick kisses, applied by staffers at eye level, deters guests from walking smack into the glass partition that separates the dark-wood bar and banquettes of the dining room from the umbrella-covered tables outside. (There were a few mishaps early on.)
Street’s not the sort of place for out-of-town friends who think tuna salad with seared ahi is avant-garde. The menu opens with dishes like Korean mungbean pancakes with anise-glazed pork belly, and Cantonese white radish cakes with Chinese sausage and a fried egg. The list can be intimidating, so just accept that you’re entering foreign territory — Feniger leaves Latin America behind for Asia and the Middle East — and thank your lucky stars. These dishes aren’t often found in kitchens with an A from the L.A. County health inspector.
In lieu of bread, baskets of crunchy millet puffs are dropped by the table. Like a Middle Eastern cousin to popcorn — toasted grain spiked with curry and riddled with currants — they are apt to vanish immediately. Put in an order for a Thai Bites platter pronto. It’s a roll-your own operation, with circles of collard leaves served on a tray along with a dollop of tamarind jam, itty-bitty shrimp and mounds of diced lime (rind inclusive), ginger, chiles, coconut and house-toasted peanuts.
A foundational smear of the sweet-tart tamarind on the collard leaf holds the other ingredients in place as you assemble your cigar, and the result is a house party of Thai flavors — sweet, bitter, hot, salty, spicy. Whether or not you’ve ever deplaned at Suvarnabhumi Airport, you’ve now tasted essential Bangkok. The staff tends to recommend the Singaporean Kaya toast — two thick slices of grilled bread slathered with coconut jam and teamed up with a fried egg. It’s sweet, and hefty enough to be a brunch dish (which it is on weekends), so if ordered too early could be an appetite killer.
This is a menu built for sharing, and although the majority of dishes fall under the small-plates rubric, they aren’t all that small. Better still, they’re decidedly unfussy — Feniger is re-creating foods commonly doled out from pushcarts at crowded intersections. The emphasis is on the authentic flavors and ingredients of specific regional cooking styles.
Smooth-textured Moldavian meatballs made with ground beef and kasha are simmered in a tomato sauce softened with dill sour cream; Vietnamese-style wok-fried corn kernels are strewn with glazed pork-belly bits; shreds of carrot and long bean lighten up the sesame peanut rice noodles. The Indian vada dumplings are standouts — small, round dal fritters topped with yogurt, mint cilantro sauce and tamarind-date chutney.
The bready starch of the fritter, cut by the cool acidity of the yogurt, tempered by the aromatics of the mint coriander combo, and then kissed with the deep-register sweetness of the slow cooked fruits — all in a one-pop package smaller than a Ping-Pong ball — is primal and ingenious.
With diners poking straws at tamarind coolers and mango lassis, and mixing the fried egg of their Korean rice salad in with its daikon, enoki and soybean sprouts, daytime Street has a relaxed, almost lazy quality. At night, the dining room feels urban and vital. Never mind the wine list, this food is made for booze and beer. Singapore Slings, Odes to Audrey (Champagne, cognac, bitters and a sugar cube) and eclectic brews — Tusker lager from Kenya, Hitachino White from Japan, Grimbergen Dubbel Ale from Belgium — head out from the bar as a stream of entrees emerge from the wood-burning oven.
The Egyptian-style baked fish with preserved lemons, collard greens and kushary exemplifies Feniger’s mission. The fish is browned, salty and moist, and would seem serenely Californian alongside poached baby carrots and a rice timbale. But with the kushary, a spiced rice, lentil and macaroni dish as old as the pyramids and sold in every hole-in-the-wall in Cairo, it becomes something infinitely more substantial and complex. Aside from being delicious, it’s a snapshot of another tradition, a culinary postcard as succinct as a photo of a famous monument.
In the event you make it to dessert with room to spare, well done. Reward yourself by skipping the achingly sweet Basbousa cake, one export from the land of the pharaohs that should probably be stopped at customs. The Turkish doughnuts and saffron yogurt pudding can hold their heads high, but the true revelation is the espresso, chocolate and halvah parfait. Thin layers of halvah-flavored whipped cream and chocolate ganache seal a deep cache of full-octane, dark-roast espresso jelly that’s almost soft enough to qualify as pudding.
I don’t know where in the world they serve this as street food, but I’m planning my next trip to find it.