Not too long ago, a look at the 1700 block of Westwood Boulevard would have concentrated on an even smaller pocket of this block: that mighty little triple threat of a nook that until recently found Ambala Dhaba, Sunnin, and Ramayani squeezed tightly together as neighbors. But as the late, great Brooklyn bard Christopher Wallace once elucidated: Damn, shit done changed. Sunnin moved across the street to noticeably nicer digs and Ambala Dhaba is slinging naan-a-ritos under the name Healthy Chicken Cafe, leaving Ramayani the sole survivor in a stately red brick building. What hasn't done changed is the potential of this block, where Thai, Persian, Lebanese, Mexican, and Indonesian restaurants all compete for your dollars and kebabs come in a variety of international styles. Follow us as we take a look at three of the mightiest bites ruling the 1700 block of Westwood Blvd.
We like Marina del Rey's Singapore Express when it comes time to indulge in Indonesian, but its really Ramayani that wears the crown out west. Spread through a free-standing red brick building, the family-owned and family-occupied restaurant turns out a near endless menu of deeply flavored, richly spiced, authentic Indo staples. The hardest part is deciding on what to order as the menu, full of colorful photos, appears to to be competing with a Russian novelist for length.
A great place to start is the crisp-skinned lumpia that's the size of a miniature burrito or the otak otak, soft banana leaf-steamed fish cakes rolled to the dimensions of Double Bubble that you peel from banana husks before dipping into a sweet peanut sauce. Since you're on skewer-heavy Westwood Boulevard and in an Indonesian restaurant to boot, it'd probably behoove you to jump on the satay combination, which offers two skewers of beef, pork, and chicken for $12, each with slightly different preps, as in the ingenious minuscule fried onions sprinkling the pork satay. While whole grilled nila ($15) or pomfret ($17) really puts us over the edge, a more typical and affordable order is the gule kambing, a traditional lamb stew ($12) that looks like birria, but with a whole other arsenal of spices for the little lamb to swim among (one menu claims 15, another 21), with coconut leading the charge. And though the owner, whose extended family sometimes drops by just to hang out like its the clan living room, might look at you funny, the durian shaved ice just might be the sweetest initiation into the notoriously stinky fruit. Mixed with brown sugar, the first initial hit comes on like a dirty diaper, before remarkably, immediately changing into something much more like dulce de leche. Ramayani is a jewel on the boulevard not to be missed for an awesome Indonesian experience.
Ramayani, 1777 Westwood Blvd. Westwood. 310-477-3315.
For over sixteen years or so, this Lebanese classic was the true embodiment of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with fantastic cuisine. The food here is so good, few people really objected to eating in the lap of a prattling UCLA student in dumpy digs come kebab time. Shortly before the dawn of 2010, Sunnin shook its shroud for a warm new space across the street. The new room finally matches the majesty of the food, even if there are some who would protest that the original had more flavor. So is everything good here? Yeah, pretty much. Chef Em-Toni has a magic touch and from the rich, sharp hummus, the mandatory kebbeh maqliyeh, and spicy diced potatoes you'll start with to the orgasmic offerings of kefta kebab, and the spicy Armenian sausage soujouk we demand you order, a spread of strong meats and beautifully balanced spices hits you at every turn. Sunnin is the kind of place that blows away newcomers, but continues to surprise its regulars when they branch out to smaller glories like the fried cauliflower or Zaatar-spread tomatoes. Legendary Sunnin is no doubt the street's main attraction and for all the right reasons, as it proved long ago that hordes will come for the food long before they come for the atmosphere.
Sunnin, 1776 Westwood Blvd. Westwood. 310-475-3358.
As we're yet to turn our attention on the naan-a-ritos at Healthy Chicken Cafe, we'll extoll the virtues of Shamshiri, the popular Persian open-grill at the top of the block that packs in divine flavors, freshly baked bread, and a steady crowd. Shamshiri is not a cheap eats restaurant for dinner. In fact the room is full of dressed-up dates and semi-formal family gatherings. A gorgeous spread of grilled lamb barg, mesquite grilled chops, or open flame-grilled, sword-impaled shishlik can cost $20 on their own, though more often than not, worth every penny.
But there are plenty of must-try dishes priced well below that. If you can get by with just a glass of water, you can fill yourself with the Monday and Friday slow roasted lamb neck special for $13, or get a restorative $12 bowl of ghormeh sabzi, the essential Persian herb stew with your choice of veal, lamb shank, or chicken. Wraps of koobideh, and beef and chicken shawarma come in around nine dollars, while a generous selection of polos, Persian pilaf, with ingredients like sour cherries, currents, and dates, all fall below fifteen. Your best bet to approach this on-point Persian food is during lunch, when specials are offered under ten dollars from 11:30 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. and include the usual shawarma and koobideh plates, along with mesquite broiled Cornish game hen, that killer chicken barg, and kebab with choices of game hen, lamb rib-eye, filet mignon, chicken, and tenderloin. Whether paying a small fortune or skimping at every turn, the food typically justifies all means.
Shamshiri Grill, 1712 Westwood Blvd. Westwood. 310-474-1410.