You can have Los Angeles. The Valley is way cooler
Marry into a San Fernando Valley family and you might come to appreciate this other side of the Santa Monica Mountains, for its neighborhood restaurants, old-school cocktail lounges, ethnic markets and a gamut of overlooked treasures.
The New York Times
A Valley Guy's guide to San Fernando hot spotsGo's Mart (22330 Sherman Way, No. C12, Canoga Park; 818-704-1459). Prices vary daily, but prepare to spend at least $50 for a full sushi meal.
Brent's (19565 Parthenia Street, Northridge; 818-886-5679; www.brentsdeli.com). Sandwiches start at $10.95.
Stovepiper Lounge (19563 Parthenia Street, Northridge; 818-886-2526; www.stovepiper.com). Drink specials start at $2.
Munch Box (21532 Devonshire Street, Chatsworth; 818-998-9240). A hickory burger with everything is $3.05.
Valley Performing Arts Center (18111 Nordhoff Street, Northridge; 818-677-3000; www.valleyperformingartscenter.org).
San Fernando Rey de Espana Mission (San Fernando Mission Boulevard, Mission Hills; 818-361-0186). Admission to museum and grounds, $4.
Joseph Eichler Tract Houses. The four short residential streets that the homes are clustered on are quiet and pleasurable for walking. Large groups are discouraged. The Modern Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy (www.modcom.org) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (www.preservationnation.org) have organized tours in the past; contact them for more information.
Encino Farmers' Market (17400 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.).
Vallarta Supermarkets (8453 Reseda Blvd., Northridge; 818-576-1280; www.vallartasupermarket.com for multiple locations).
Carrillo's Mexican Deli (19744 Sherman Way, Canoga Park; 818-887-6118).
Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve. Trailhead is at the end of Victory Boulevard in West Hills; free.
Ten years ago, I married a Valley Girl. She is neither a salon-tanned airhead nor a mall-rat. I have never heard her utter the phrase "No way!"
Yes, I'll admit I'm a little defensive when it comes to the San Fernando Valley. Unlike most visitors to Southern California, my introduction to Greater Los Angeles started in the vast and forever maligned Valley — that assemblage of suburban communities falling mostly within the Los Angeles city limits — where Michele grew up. I've spent plenty of time on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains, in the more glamorous precincts of central Los Angeles, but during a decade's worth of visits with my wife to both sides of the "hill" — as those mountains, and the perceived cultural divide they represent, are affectionately known — I've come to an interesting conclusion: I tend to prefer the Valley. Sure, it's got strip malls and strip clubs in equal abundance, and it lacks the chic cachet that so many people associate with Los Angeles. But that lack of hipness is exactly its charm.
If coastal Los Angeles is where people strive and achieve, the Valley is where they put down roots and live. And so, as I've happily discovered while covering hundreds of miles of Valley pavement over the years, the place is home to dozens of un-self-consciously excellent neighborhood restaurants, old-school cocktail lounges, uncompromisingly authentic ethnic markets and a gamut of overlooked treasures, from hiking trails to architectural landmarks. Here is a selection of my favorites.
Angelenos from the coast side of the hill boast, justifiably, about their Japanese restaurants. But for a Valley dweller, having a good sushi joint around the corner is considered nothing short of a birthright. A couple of the most memorable raw-fish experiences of my life have taken place at the eight-seat counter of Go's Mart, a shoe box sushi bar in a Canoga Park mini-mall. The décor consists of little more than a rice cooker and a dry-erase board with the day's catch on it, but the creations of the chef, a taciturn character who goes only by the nickname Go-San, are masterworks: strips of garnet-colored Pacific bluefin tuna garnished with gossamer-thin rounds of crisp-fried garlic; toro with balsamic glaze and black caviar; toothsome abalone from the Santa Barbara coast topped by shavings of black truffle and a shower of gold leaf. Head to Go's early; within 10 minutes of the noon opening, it's filled to capacity with sushi-obsessed West Valley regulars.
Brisket, booze and burgers
Not far from Go's Mart, in yet another strip mall, stands Brent's, a 35-year-old restaurant with a cheesy faux stained-glass facade. David Sax, the author of "Save the Deli," has called Brent's "the surprise heavyweight" of Jewish delicatessens in Los Angeles, and he's right. The hungry screenwriters can have the glare of Canter's, and Larry King his banquette at Nate n' Al, but you've got to go to the Valley for corned beef and whitefish salad this good, and for made-from-scratch kishke, an old-world delicacy that the owner Ron Peskin all but rescued from West Coast extinction. All that cured meat will make you thirsty, so head next door to the Stovepiper, a timeworn cocktail lounge with the cool, dark interior of an off-Strip casino and a sign out front advertising "the best drinks in the Valley" (a claim I was unable to verify, though not for lack of trying).
Then there is the matter of the hamburger, that most sacred of Southern California foods. All due respect to the Apple Pan — the venerable burger-slinging lunch counter in West Los Angeles — those seeking a quintessential SoCal burger experience would do well to head to the Valley enclave of Chatsworth and install themselves on one of the outdoor counter stools at the Munch Box. This yellow, hutch-like building, dating from the 1950s, produces a near-perfect, classically Los Angeles burger: small patty, soft bun warmed on the griddle, hickory-flavored sauce, butcher-paper wrapping.
The Valley is not the cultural desert that many Angelenos make it out to be. In 2011 it got its own soaring, glass-walled 1,700-seat performing arts center, in Northridge, which has recently hosted shows by the Los Angeles Ballet, the San Francisco Jazz Collective, and Savion Glover, among other notable acts. Wooing bigger marquee artists away from the downtown Walt Disney Concert Hall will take time, but every David needs a Goliath.
For a quieter, more modest cultural fix, try the museum and chapel at the San Fernando Rey de Espana Mission, one of the most impeccably preserved sites from California's Spanish colonial era. Though it occupies a wedge of land in Mission Hills hemmed in on all sides by freeways, it offers a profoundly serene experience. Stroll through the arcaded walkways and statuary-dotted courtyards and explore the painstakingly restored adobe buildings, which include a still-active mission church with a gilded altarpiece from the 17th century. On the day I was there, I was the only visitor, a circumstance that afforded me an unexpectedly moving moment of solitude before the grave of longtime Valley-dweller Bob Hope, who is interred in his own little memorial garden at the mission's edge.
I had a solitary communion of another sort in the northern Valley community of Granada Hills, which is home to dozens of pristinely maintained mid-20th-century Joseph Eichler tract houses. As wealthy buyers have snapped up modernist landmarks by Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler in Silverlake and other Los Angeles neighborhoods, these light-filled, low-slung houses, with their distinctive A-frame entry atriums, have quietly soldiered on in the role their visionary developer intended — as shelter for everyday working families. And for what it's worth, the Valley has Neutras and Schindlers, too, plus one of my favorite undersung modernist Frank Lloyd Wright homes: the Adams House, a wee, pitched-roof wood cottage built in 1939 at the now busy corner of Tampa Avenue and Valerio Street.
The Santa Monica and Hollywood farmers' markets, with their biodynamic vegetables and good-looking customers, are justly beloved, but if you want to see how a more diverse cross section of Angelenos uses California's bounty, pay a Sunday morning visit to the Encino Farmers' Market, off Victory Boulevard. The place offers a fine primer on Latin American and Asian produce: Mexican guavas, fat daikons, parsleylike tong hu, yellow-flowered yu choy, and on and on. The Valley is also home to scores of outstanding ethnic groceries, the largest of which are the size of big-box stores. At any of the dozen Vallarta Supermarkets across the Valley you'll find honeycomb tripe, ricottalike requeson made on the premises and freshly baked tres leches cakes, among other pleasures. Indeed, for Mexican ingredients alone, the Valley is a mother lode, dotted with family-run purveyors like Carrillo's Mexican Deli, on Sherman Way, which grinds its own field corn to make the most fragrant handmade corn tortillas I've tasted outside Mexico.
Harbored in the mountains that surround the Valley floor is a sprawling patchwork of preserves, state parklands and national recreation areas that form a nearly contiguous greenbelt. In West Hills, just up the street from the 1960s tile-roof ranch house where my wife's parents still live, you'll find the main trailhead for the Upper Los Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, a 2,650-acre expanse of native oak savanna that extends deep into the Simi Hills. Dotted with craggy trees and bisected by reedy glades, it is a place of stunning beauty. Michele and I have hiked there dozens of times, often without encountering another soul — further evidence that the Valley is a great place for visitors more interested in seeing than being seen.