The San Fernando Valley is also where you can eat Korean comfort food inside a car dealership.

By Andy Wang
September 11, 2019
The Ingalls

One of the better steaks in Los Angeles is served at one of the city’s more unlikely dining destinations. To visit the new Santuari restaurant and eat its beautifully marbled dry-aged rib eye, you pull up to the Toluca Lake Tennis & Fitness Club, on Forest Lawn Drive across from Warner Bros. Studios. There’s free valet parking for Santuari guests, a rare perk in L.A. There’s also a lot of history here, at a tennis club that dates back to 1974 and had early members including Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Farrah Fawcett, and Clint Eastwood.

Walk through the lobby, past an employee who’s handing out towels, and enter one of the most transporting restaurants in L.A. The patio at Santuari overlooks tennis courts, and you’ll likely see sweaty players walking past the restaurant through much of your dinner (or lunch or weekend brunch or happy hour), but that’s not the most notable part of the ambiance.

Santuari resembles the Mediterranean villa of a globetrotting mogul who spends summers in Mallorca. The main dining room has striking white decor, stunning brickwork, beamed ceilings, and plush leather furniture. There’s also an adjacent chamber with Moorish arches and salvaged North African lanterns. A sea-green backdrop adds to the vacation-like vibe.

Wherever you sit at Santuari, which used to be the tennis club’s members-only dining room, you’ll likely want to order the 45-day dry-aged rib eye with a roasted garlic-butter crust and grilled onions. Our bone-in rib eye comes out perfectly medium-rare and is everything we want dry-aged steak to be: deeply beefy, slightly funky, expertly seasoned, juicy and tender with the right amount of fat.

The Ingalls

And the space is an ideal setting for executive chef Brendan Mica (whose career highlights include being chef de cuisine at The Wilshire in Santa Monica, where he worked under acclaimed chef Andrew Kirschner) to showcase his Californian-Mediterranean cuisine. Mica admits he was apprehensive at first about cooking inside a tennis club, but the design of the restaurant won him over.

“Mediterreanean-style cooking is what I eat at home,” he says. “It’s what I’m drawn to. I really like that fresh style of cooking. For me, it was kind of freeing to have the opportunity to make food that matches the space. To be able to pair Californian and Mediterranean, the possibilities are broad and exciting.”

Mica’s standout side dishes include Anson Mills grits with local market corn, feta, parmesan, tarragon, and dukkah. Santuari also serves Anson Mills wheat berries with burrata, basil pistou, Calabrese peppers, capers, and preserved lemon in a side that’s like a grain bowl you can pair with dry-aged steak. Mica says he wants to expand the grill section of the menu with additional steaks and other meats like a pork porterhouse and assorted off-cuts.

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Santuari’s menu is loaded with dishes that pop with freshness and color. The many bright spots include a salad that features roasted market beets and blood orange. Sea bass is used for both ceviche and an entrée with sunchoke, Castelvetrano olives, capers, and grilled orange salsa verde. Mica makes his own pastas, including tagliatelle he uses for his version of cacio e pepe with asiago, butter, and parmesan. He makes his own focaccia and flatbreads. Dessert at Santuari includes an excellent strawberry shortcake with Harry’s Berries strawberries tossed in rhubarb syrup and housemade limoncello. Santuari is very much one of those satisfying Los Angeles restaurants that focuses on seasonal, made-from-scratch dishes without making a big deal of it.

Another thing that Santuari has going for it is that it’s in the San Fernando Valley, where adventurous food enthusiasts are used to eating in unlikely locations. We like the gas-station burritos at Cilantro Mexican Grill and the strip-mall duck larb at Kim Thai Food on Sherman Way, where you can also eat breakfast burritos with Northern Thai sausage inside Valley Glen diner Hungry Fox. There’s even a prime-rib restaurant, Horseless Carriage, at the Galpin Ford dealership in North Hills.

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There’s also tremendously comforting Korean food at Sunrise Cafe, a new North Hollywood restaurant that happens to be inside the Sunrise Ford dealership.

At first glance, the menu posted above the register at the counter-service Sunrise Cafe seems pretty standard for a place where you can grab a quick bite while waiting for an oil change. The menu includes breakfast burritos, bagel sandwiches, burgers, fried chicken sandwiches, Philly cheesesteaks, salads, tacos, quesadillas, and mozzarella sticks. But there’s also a section of Asian bowls like katsu curry.

The move here, though, is to ask for the special Korean menu. You’ll be handed a one-page menu with bibimbap, tofu soup, tofu pancakes, fried rice, and Korean barbecue bowls. We order a galbi bowl, and the tender short ribs are as flavorful as what you’ll find at top-tier grill-your-own Korean barbecue restaurants. Meanwhile, Sunrise Cafe’s spicy, creamy, and altogether terrific tofu soup with thinly sliced rib eye is exactly what we want to spoon over rice. The soup comes with an array of sides: bean-sprout salad, cold tofu, and tangy pieces of fried pork.

Sunrise Cafe’s chef, who’s known as Mama Woo and actually tells us her name is Mama when we ask, is serving Korean food based on her home recipes. But she also has the range and worldview of an L.A. restaurant veteran. On the day we visit Sunrise Cafe, Woo is wearing a T-shirt that reps her other restaurant, a nearby Vietnamese spot called Pho NoHo. Our favorite thing to eat at Pho NoHo is the house special pho with meatballs, tripe, brisket, rare rib eye, and tendon. This soul-warming noodle soup is so good that you probably won’t even mind that you’re dining in a typical restaurant space.

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