Restaurant Review #271: El Huarache Azteca, Highland Park

El super huarache with potatoes and peppers and "corn mushroom," $7.95

Duck into this casual, inexpensive Highland Park joint for an elongated pancake of fried masa studded with pinto beans and topped with your choice of two meats or veggies, a light crumbling of cotija, a drizzle of crema, thinly sliced red onions, and pools of red and green salsa.

I ordered mine with papas con rajas and the gourmet corn fungus known as huitlacoche. There are several other veggie options, including squash blossoms. The meat choices include the usual taco meats and chicken tinga. If the huarache doesn't appeal to you, you'll find your favorite Mexican dish somewhere on the extensive menu. It's cash only, and there's an ATM inside the restaurant, along with a somewhat unnerving live feed of the restaurant's security cam footage.

And yes, the super huarache was delicious. The first bite took me right back to my host mom's kitchen from a summer study abroad trip to Mexico many years ago.

El Huarache Azteca 
5225 York Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90042
(323) 478-9572
El Huarache Azteca website
El Huarache Azteca menu


Restaurant Review #270: D'Amore's Famous Pizza, Thousand Oaks

Margherita slice and meat-lover's slice

D'Amore's looks like a hole in the wall in a busy strip mall on TO Blvd., but it's actually a small Southern California chain with nine restaurants from Tustin to Camarillo and one location in Vegas. The hook is that it's a Boston-style pizzeria owned by 100% Italian Joe D'Amore, who relocated from Boston to SoCal.

D'Amore's claims to have been importing its water from Boston since 1987 in order to make the crust crispy, and that it's now importing water from the Italian Alps. I'm not sure I buy that the water would make all the difference, but the crust is indeed crisp, quite unlike your typical thin-crust slice.

They say the other secrets to their success are using extra virgin olive oil, not lard, in the crust, and only using July tomatoes, the sweetest of the year with no added sugar, in their sauce. Too bad my entire slice had maybe one teaspoon of sauce, so I couldn't taste it. They also use a low-moisture, low-salt, part-skim mozzarella made in Wisconsin and cook their pizzas in a brick oven.

D'Amore's also claims to be the No. 1 rated pizza in America, according to a 2002 Citysearch poll that has it handily beating institutions like Grimaldi's in Brooklyn, and Ray Romano has called it his favorite pizza in LA. And D'Amore's has done a nutritional analysis of its pizza showing that a single cheese slice has just 166 calories and is remarkably low in fat, quite an accomplishment for a piece of pizza.

Slices are $4 each, which sounds like a bargain, but one slice of margherita pizza wasn't nearly enough to fill me up, and I'm a light eater. Whole pizzas ($19 to $26) seem pricey by fast-food pizza chain standards, but are typical of pizza parlors and are a much better value. You can choose from one of their specialty pizzas (also sold by the slice) or build your own at the usual hefty price per topping (45 cents each on slices, up to $2.35 each on a jumbo pie).

If I'd ordered a lunch special that came with a garlic knot and a full-sized plate of salad (romaine, mozzarella, tomatoes, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, and olives), I would have been fine. They also serve a few soups, salads, pastas, chicken dishes, calzones, and desserts, but the focus is clearly the pizza.

I enjoyed the crispness of the crust, the flavorful cheese, fresh basil, and lack of grease, but the tomatoes were mealy (they almost always are at restaurants, but that doesn't make it okay) and the sauce was almost nonexistent. The toppings on the meat-lover's slice were generous and the quality was above average, though it could have used more sausage. I waited at least 10 minutes for my order, which seemed like a long time for a simple slice of pizza.

The restaurant is long, narrow and dark with a TV tuned to a sports channel on the back wall, so D'Amore's is best for a casual bite or takeout. The service was fine, but you just order and pay at the counter and they drop your meal off at your table, so there isn't much to judge. If you ask for water, you get only a tiny plastic cup, which doesn't generate goodwill (or make me want to pay for a soda). Overall, the experience was fine, but it wasn't anything I would go back for.

D'Amore's Famous Pizza
2869 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd.
Thousand Oaks, CA 91362
D'Amore's Famous Pizza menu
D'Amore's Famous Pizza website