I love Marina del Rey, not just because I’m a boat addict, even though I am. It’s not just the fresh air, although I love that too. It’s also the diversity of people, businesses, and restaurants one can find tucked away in unlikely spots.
Recently I spent a couple of days going around to some of the ethnic restaurants I used to visit when I was working in the Marina.
First I decided to look at the Siamese Gardens Thai restaurant, (310) 821-0098, at 301 Washington Blvd. in the Marina area. It’s located invisibly behind a hedge on Washington along the canal. Being alongside the canal gives it an authentic Thai feeling, and a walk along the canal after dinner feels like being outside Los Angeles.
I used to have the fish soup, still on the menu, I noticed, which is a great bargain at $5. Even the most expensive item on the menu, the whole fish at $24, is a bargain. But the restaurant was closed when I went to visit it, so I’ll try another day.
Next to the Siamese Gardens, and taking up about ten times as much frontage, is Baja Cantina, (310) 821-2252, 311 Washington Blvd. This spot was really happening. There was a chili contest in the parking lot, so naturally I sampled a few contenders. The judges hadn’t yet rendered a verdict, but the favorite among the people I spoke with was a mildly spicy mixture with jalape“os and chorizo sausage as a base. Personally I preferred one with the traditional ground beef base, with a diversity of peppers.
Dining in the Cantina, my wife and I felt transported to Mexico. There were lots of rooms to choose from, some open, some covered. The stuff on the shelves around the main room, and hanging from the ceiling, would do some Mexican antique store proud. The standard menu had any Mexican food you could want. And of course almost everyone was drinking a beer. You would be out of place at the Cantina without a beer in hand.
The most popular dishes, I was told, are the combinations. There’s also a nice selection of burgers and fish dishes. I sampled the four sauces they serve — the mildly spicy green guacamole sauce, the BBQ sauce (too sweet for my taste, and not enough vinegar), the “rosemary” sauce, what you and I would call a tomato sauce with pieces of onions and peppers, and the chipotle sauce—good flavor, and fine for my wife, but not nearly hot enough for my taste.
The Cantina, a really fun place, serves good quality Mexican food, and it’s a great place to stop in for a beer and chips —especially when there’s a game on, like Monday nights. The restaurant is open from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the bar is open until 1:30 a.m. seven days a week.
Another longtime favorite restaurant for many years is the Akbar. When the current owners’ father ran it, it was further west on Washington Boulevard. Now, with several different locations, it’s run by the founder’s sons.
This one is at 3115 Washington Blvd., on the south side of the street, (310) 574-0666. Indian food can be filling, but I’ve found the dishes here are lighter than those served in some Indian restaurants. My favorites are the chicken in cashew-saffron sauce (mild) and the pepper lamb (very hot), and when I’m with enough friends to share — sides of the spinach and roasted eggplant dishes. And at $16 for a dinner entree, I can afford a couple of dishes.
But the surprising thing about this Akbar is the wine selection. Personally I usually drink beer with Indian food, because I like spicy food. But they have one of the best selections of California cult wines anywhere in Los Angeles, including a number that are virtually impossible to find on any other list. Of course you have to be willing to part with anywhere from $100 to $1,000 for some of them, but this is Los Angeles, and there are a lot of rich people eating in Marina del Rey.
Finally I stopped at the Wharo Korean BBQ, in the shopping center anchored by Walgreens, at the corner of Lincoln and Washington Boulevards (4029 Lincoln Blvd., Marina del Rey area,  578-7114). The name comes from a Korean traditional charcoal pot. Korean food is wonderfully flavorful, diverse, and great to pick at with friends over conversation. The Wharo occupies a shopping center storefront location —typical of Los Angeles.
The Wharo menu includes a lot of dishes that are fun to experiment with — such as the prime tongue, but my oldest son and I like to go there and grill pieces of beef and chicken with a variety of vegetables. Prices are uncommonly reasonable. Wharo is not open for lunch, but is open for dinner every evening.
Eating in the Marina del Rey area can be an international experience, and it reminds me that we are part of the Pacific Rim. These days I was eating on the low end. Next month I’ll report on the other side of the coin—CafÈ del Rey.
Merv Hecht is a consultant to a number of local and international food and wine companies. He lives part of the year in Pacific Palisades, and part of the year in Port Grimaud, France. He is also the European wine buyer for a number of local restaurants and several national wine sales organizations. With his partner Chef Alain Giraud, he is currently helping to set up the new Anisette Brasserie in Santa Monica.