The search for America's best food cities:
The search for America's best food cities: Los Angeles
Eighth in a monthly series.
To get a sense of the Los Angeles food scene, hit the streets and order a taco, probably the most iconic dish in the city: widely available, typically affordable and receptive to interpretation.
As with po’ boys in New Orleans, “everyone eats tacos” in the City of Angels, says Bill Esparza, a blogger for Street Gourmet LA. There are hundreds of sources of tortillas and toppings, but Esparza and other insiders never fail to sing the praises of Guerrilla Tacos, introduced three years ago as a two-person food cart and now prowling the Southland in a blue mobile taqueria.
The Search for America's Best Food Cities:
Part I: Charleston, S.C.
Part II: San Francisco
Part III: Chicago
Part IV: Portland, Ore.
Part V: Philadelphia
Part VI: New Orleans
Part VII: New York
Part VIII: Los Angeles
Part IX: Houston
Part X: Washington D.C.
The muse behind the menu is Wes Avila, a chef with a background in fine dining; the ingredients reflect a sense of what’s local and luscious, if sometimes unexpected. On a recent fall afternoon, Guerrilla customers in the Arts District had the option of a tostada composed not just with big-eye tuna and fresh sea urchin, but also with furikake (Japan’s answer to salt and pepper) and colorful bull’s blood microgreens.
“Sorry, no more uni,” latecomers to the window were told — a full hour before lunch ended. What could have been a rare low moment during a week-long sweep of Los Angeles, my eighth stop on a mission to identify the country’s 10 best food cities, was rescued by a choice consolation: a taco dressed with sweet potatoes, feta cheese, scallions and fried corn. (Olé, by the way.)
I didn’t know it at the time, but nearly 30 meals later, I realized that the snack represented a lot about what makes the second-largest city in the nation a top-tier place to eat: sun-kissed ingredients, chefs’ willingness to buck convention and an audience open to eating just about anything, just about anywhere.
Breadth, depth and geography
Ask the pros what makes Los Angeles so delicious, and “diversity” tops everyone’s list. The rainbow coalition that makes up this city of 4 million people, nearly 50 percent of them of Hispanic origin and 15 percent of Asian ancestry, results in pupusas as you’d find them in El Salvador, rice as you’d taste it in Iran and pho as ladled out in Vietnam.
“The sheer variety is unmatched anywhere else in the country,” says Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Los Angeles Times. (He jokes that his focus has changed from his tenure reviewing restaurants for the late Gourmet magazine, where “I thought about food as answers for the rich.” In Los Angeles, the emphasis is on “hangover food.”)
Large groups of people who appreciate the food of their heritage demand restaurants that “don’t have to simplify for anyone,” agrees Patric Kuh, the veteran restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine and a onetime restaurant cook. “Koreans aren’t trying to appeal to non-Koreans.”
At the same time, no one calls anyone on tradition. “We’re open to mash-ups,” says chef Suzanne Goin, the muse behind the small-plates-driven A.O.C. and the modern-Californian spot Lucques. The poster child for food trucks in the city is Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ acclaim, whose tacos and burritos bridge Mexico and Korea with short ribs and house-made kimchi in their fillings. “We don’t have to carry the torch of California cuisine the way Berkeley does,” says Kuh.
Some of the area’s most intriguing dining occurs in the most unlikely places. Downtown’s newish RiceBar is basically a lunch counter that happens to serve Filipino food by a former chef at the upscale Patina. The modern-American Redbird is carved from what used to be a rectory.
Memory lane is strewn with quirky places to eat, the hat-shaped Brown Derby among the best-known. “Food as spectacle” goes back at least to 1897, says Josh Kun, author of this year’s historical restaurant romp, “To Live and Dine in L.A.” That’s the year Al Levy switched from serving oysters on a sidewalk to offering them in a public dining room. The pushcart became a beacon, displayed on the roof Al Levy’s Ouster House. In 1928, MGM studio artists built a restaurant for film star Fatty Arbuckle: the Plantation Cafe in Culver City, a pretend plantation house. The same year, at the Jail Cafe on Sunset Boulevard, diners sitting in mock cells supped on chicken and steak dinners served by waiters dressed as inmates. “Let’s go to jail!” an ad from the era beckoned.
To find the best immigrant food, an explorer has to identify where its cooks congregate: East L.A. for Central American and Mexican, Glendale for Armenian and Middle Eastern, Koreatown in Central L.A. for specialties including octopus soup and grilled wild boar, and Studio City for some of the best sushi bars on the West Coast. Until the 1980s, most Chinese menus in Los Angeles were found in New and Old Chinatown, according to “Live and Dine in L.A.” Kun writes that a wave of immigrants and developers shifted the action east into Monterey Park, a city in Los Angeles County, and launched a trend: “Chinese food for Chinese diners.” (No one could tell me why, but the affluent neighborhood of Brentwood brims with Italian trattorias.)
How to tag the best tacos when they’re seemingly everywhere? Esparza, the Mexican American food expert, suggests purveyors that specialize in just a few items and that don’t cook steak, hog’s maw and tripe together on the same flat iron; and cooks who work “fast and clean,” as if they know what they’re doing. He also advises looking for top-quality ingredients (fresh and fiery manzano peppers, orange when ripe, are a good-if-rare sign) and playing like a reporter in front of a cart, stand or storefront. “Take time to ask them where they’re from,” he says of the operators. “Little Mexico is better than big Mexico.” Translation, por favor? A taco pegged to a region or, better yet, a hometown speaks to pride of place — and, hence, product.
Los Angeles covers about 500 square miles, a good excuse for some people to stay home and enjoy the California lifestyle depicted for decades in Sunset magazine and a fact that Besha Rodell, restaurant critic of LA Weekly, says she incorporates into her rating system, stars being assigned “based on how far you should drive, not about how fancy” a restaurant is. Whether distance is a negative or a positive for the food-obsessed depends on whom you talk to. Gold says that a trip from the West Side to the San Gabriel Valley for Chinese that might take 90 minutes during the work week might take less than half that time — “a magic carpet ride” — on the weekend. While the state’s stringent drinking-and-driving penalties have probably kept the cocktail scene from being more robust, say insiders, the debut of the app-based Uber in Los Angeles three years ago has been a boon to diners in general.
In the introduction to his 2014 roundup of 101 Best Restaurants in the Los Angeles Times, Gold praised his subjects and their passion this way: “When you ask local chefs privately about their favorite restaurants, they are far more likely to mention Kobawoo House, Colonia Taco Lounge and Sapp Coffee Shop than they are Spago and Ink. No matter how much they admire L.A.’s most advanced kitchens, they are more excited by the possibilities of kimchi, huauzontle [a native Mexican vegetable] and fish sauce than they are by lobster and truffles.”
Dining without pretense
If L.A. is missing one thing in its mouthwatering offerings, it’s the experience of fine dining, rare as a necktie. In her three years as restaurant critic for LA Weekly, Rodell has yet to award an establishment her highest rating, five stars. One of the few restaurants that she and her peers point to as an exemplar, Providence, headed by chef Michael Cimarusti, is capable of beautiful food. But I found the service so unwelcoming — I was ignored at the door and dismissed by a sullen bartender — that I left mid-prawn for a competitor, Spago (where, I’m pleased to report, the reception is superior and the smoked salmon pizza is as good as ever).
Los Angeles has nothing on par with, say, the luxurious Quince in San Francisco or the polished Le Bernardin in New York. On the other hand, Los Angeles plays host to some of the finest Japanese restaurants in the country, where moneyed chowhounds can drop hundreds of dollars a head for prime fish and other delicacies. Some of the best sushi around, at Asanebo in Studio City, occurs in an ordinary shopping strip.
In better restaurants here, the glory is rarely found in the finery — linens and stemware — but rather in the ingredients, and the expectation that a kitchen will do them justice. Perhaps the hottest ticket in town right now is Maude in Beverly Hills, a 25-seat dining room with food by celebrity chef Curtis Stone: nine courses, each starring the same seasonal treasure. October put apples on display. November will highlight white truffles — and a price tag of $375 a head.
“Fine dining is very much alive; it’s just redefined” in Los Angeles, says restaurant mogul Bill Chait, whose collection includes Bestia (Italian) and République (Californian). Part of the shift is explained by a new generation of worldly diners. “The rack-of-lamb market has become the lamb-neck market,” says Chait. Southern California’s informality is another factor: “The interest in pretense has never been lower.” Order the $175 tasting menu at République, and the food is deposited in the center of the table — you know, for sharing.
The more-relaxed approach to contemporary dining can be traced to 1982, the year Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck, a veteran of the French-accented Ma Maison, broke free of tradition when he opened Spago, one of the first upscale restaurants in the country to expose its kitchen to diners and offer designer pizza on its menu. Reached on his cellphone while he was shopping at a farmers market this month, Puck ticked off his reasons for mixing things up: In the event he couldn’t afford a manager, “I wanted to see the customers and I wanted them to see the cooks,” who, he reasoned, wouldn’t scream at one another if they knew they were on display. A year later, Puck blazed more trails when he introduced Chinois in Santa Monica, a pan-Asian restaurant that incorporated American ingredients and Chinese techniques. Although he wasn’t trained in Asian cooking, and had only been to Hong Kong once, Puck says, “I knew how I felt about it.”
The handmade tortillas of Sunset Boulevard
Corn tortillas are made fresh to order at Guisados on W. Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. A window lets you watch.
Shopping with the stars
The casual approach Angelenos take to dining out extends to dining in, starting with grocery shopping at standard-bearers including Gelson’s, Trader Joe’s and the health-minded Lassens, name brands that are kept on their toes by immigrant chains 99 Ranch Market (Chinese), Jons International Marketplace (Middle Eastern) and Mitsuwa Marketplace (Japanese). No city claims better, or more varied, sources for food, much of it available year-round. San Francisco comes close, but as Russ Parsons, food columnist for the Los Angeles Times, points out, Bay Area shoppers give off “an attitude of self-congratulation” regarding their markets. Angelenos, in contrast, see as normal a tomato season that runs into November and the possibility of a dozen kinds of tangerines. Great arugula — snappy of stalk and peppery in taste — is part of the everyday. Romanesco is as ubiquitous as ramen.
“To Live and Dine in L.A.” reminds us that access to stellar ingredients is nothing new to Southern California. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Los Angeles was symbolized by an elephant fabricated with 850 pounds of walnuts, wearing a belt of lemons and bearing a basket brimming with corn, wheat and barley.
Even now, when it comes to farmers markets, Los Angeles has few peers. Among the crown jewels is the Hollywood Farmers Market, the flagship in a group of eight markets run by Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA). Poised to celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, the Hollywood market brings together up to 90 certified farmers and 170 vendors every Sunday.
Along with fresh oysters, artisanal ice cream and vegan mole, a stroll uncovers papalo (similar to cilantro), moringa leaves (from the “horseradish” trees native to India) and sugar cane (the tropical grass), a reflection of the diversity of the community that shops the market, says James Haydu, SEE-LA’s executive director.
And the featured attractions aren’t limited to stalls and carts. “Unlike in Toledo,” Haydu teases, “you’ll be buying apples next to Reese Witherspoon.”