Monday, March 20, 2017
Ten Places You Should Eat When You Visit LA
So you're coming to LA and you want to know where to eat? We are blessed with a wide variety of most excellent food, but the volume can be daunting, and since I get this question a lot, I thought I'd make a list. Obviously, any such list will necessarily exclude huge amounts of great food, but if you don't frequent LA and you're looking for a taste of the town, here are some recommendations. They will be most convenient if you're staying anywhere in the mid-city area (they are in no particular order):
1. Guisados. You wan't tacos? This is your place. Originating in Boyle Heights, there are now five locations serving some of the best tacos in LA, with stewed fillings (the guisados). I'm partial to the bistek in salsa roja, the tinga de pollo and the quesadilla - which will ruin every other quesadilla you ever eat.
2. Chi Spacca. It's more of splurge than most of the places on the list, but Nancy Silverton's meat-focused Italian restaurant is one of my favorite places in town. Here's what you should get: Focaccia di Recco, a glorious, cheesy flat bread; Beef & Bone Marrow Pie - braised beef, onions and mushrooms baked in a pie with a marrow bone - this may be my favorite dish in LA; a few veggie sides -the white beans in olive oil if they have them; and Butterscotch Budino, a salty, creamy pudding that is one of LA's most beloved deserts.
3. Smorgasburg. One of LA's biggest food legacies of this century is that it helped pioneer alternatives to the brick and mortar restaurant - food trucks, pop ups, underground restaurants and food festivals have defined cutting edge dining in LA for the last decade. Smorgasburg was Brooklyn born but it's tailor made for LA - a Sunday food festival at the downtown produce market where you can get anything from lobster to doughnuts from various stands and trucks. Smorgasburg is partly on this list so you can experience the variety of this LA scene, but it's mostly here so you can experience the amazing pastrami at Ugly Drum - I'm talking life-changing, moist, smoky, bursting with flavor pastrami. So go hungry, shop around, but be sure to get a pastrami sandwich.
4. Szechuan Impression or Chengdu Taste. The number of spots serving great Sichuan food, with its palate numbing peppercorns and oceans of red peppers, has multiplied in recent years, and that's a very good thing. My family is divided about whether the best purveyor is Chengdu Taste or Sichuan Impression, so I figured I'd include both. So head out to the San Gabriel Valley and get some boiled fish, toothpick lamb and, at Szechuan Impression, don't miss the chicken in chili oil.
5. Elite Restaurant (or Sea Harbor, King Hua, Lunasia). It's hard for me to fathom LA without San Gabriel Valley dim sum. Sea Harbor pioneered the genre of higher end LA dim sum, but at all four of these spots, you'll find a similar experience of high quality dim sum ordered off the menu rather than from carts. All of these are great and the offerings are fairly similar, though King Hua is more expensive than the others.
6. Park's BBQ. As a denizen of our Koreatown neighborhood, I eat a fair amount of Korean food, but Korean BBQ is the most widespread. There are tons of places - at least one per block, but the meat at Park's continually rises above the competition. I like the non-marinated options which let the meat shine, but it's all good.
7. Republique. Republique is a much loved fine dining restaurant serving Cal-Frenchish seasonal cuisine. It's known, in particular, for fantastic charcuterie, roast chicken and fries, but it's really on this list for the breakfast and lunch menu. During the day, Republique transforms into a more casual spot where you order at the counter; the cheese and oyster bars from the evening are replaced by a lavish pastry display including an amazingly moist chocolate caramel cake and the best caneles I've ever had. The lunch menu has a nice variety of fairly simple dishes done very well; there are perfectly cooked eggs with bright orange yolks alongside thick cut slabs of bacon and one of their wonderful baguettes, pork adobo over rice, kimchi rice with a soft poached egg, sauteed mushrooms over eggs on toast and a great croque madame. I never tire of breakfast at Republique, and I always leave wishing I could eat more pastries.
8. Philippe The Original. There's an ongoing argument about which of two restaurants in LA originally came up with the French Dip sandwich, but Cole's has been completely remade into a hipster-friendly bar, and while their dip is good, it's nothing like the sandwich they served ten years ago, so it's hard to imagine it would be anything like what they served one hundred years ago. Philippe's, on the other hand, is a meaty time capsule that will make you wonder if you've been transported Tardis-like to a different century. You stand in line, you order at the counter, your feet are cushioned by the sawdust on the floor, and they even have phone booths - mysterious antiquities that never cease to amuse my kids. It's not elegant; the sandwiches are served on paper plates that look like they were somehow fashioned from old egg cartons. And it's probably not what you're used to when you order a French Dip. There's no cup of au jus; they dip it for you, and you can choose a single dip, double dip or get it "wet." You can get the original beef if you like, but I like the lamb, sliced off the bone as you watch, double dipped with blue cheese and a few squirts of their nasal clearing hot mustard. Sides of cole slaw, potato salad and pickled eggs are a nice addition.
9. Night + Market Song. There are many great Thai places in LA, and to be sure, Night + Market is a more hipster Thai joint and not even in Thaitown, but I can't get enough of the crispy rice salad with bits of sour pork, the fatty pork toro and pork shoulder and the hearty bowls of khao soi, Locations in Silverlake and West Hollywood.
10. Jaragua. It's funny how ubiquitous the pupusa is in LA and how hard it can be to find in much of the rest of the country. Central America was one of the biggest sources of immigrants to LA in the 1980s and '90s, and while Guatemala and Honduras have some culinary representation, it's Salvadoran food which really took off, and pupusas, corn meal patties filled with meat, cheese and/or beans, became the most recognizable Salvadoran dish. I used to rely on a tiny pupuseria near my house that made amazing disks, scorchingly hot and beautifully spiced, but while it's still there, it's pupusas have fallen on hard times. The best pupusas I eat now are the ones at Jaragua on Beverly, particularly the pupusa revuelta in which the pork and cheese meld together into a wonderful savory lava that oozes out when you cut into it. You can also get very good renditions of other Salvadoran staples, like pan con pavo, a giant turkey sandwich drenched in gravy, and salpicon, a dish of finely chopped beef, mint, radish and onion which resembles the Thai dish larb.
Honorable Mentions: I wanted to keep this list to ten and create something that was actually usable for someone visiting town who wanted to have an experience that was both diverse and delicious, but of course, I left a lot out, so this is where I cheat and add some other great places that I was sorry to leave off.
It's hard to believe I couldn't fit a Oaxacan place on here - Guelaguetza is the most well known, and you probably need to go there if you've never been or if you're new to the cuisine, but I spend much more time eating clayudas (giant pizza-like discs of tortilla topped with beans, cabbage and meat) and mole at La Morenita Oaxaqueña and memelas (thick tortillas with beans and cheese) at Antequera de Oaxaca.
There is amazing sushi in LA that's also very expensive. High end Japanese food is not my forte, but when I eat it, I like Sushi Park in Hollywood and Sushi One in Koreatown.
There is so much Korean food in LA, much of it excellent. If BBQ isn't your thing, it's worth trying the dol sot bi bim bap at Jeon Ju, the braised mackeral and kalbi at Seongbukdong and the roast pork bossam (sliced pork wrapped, taco-like, in radish slices) at Kobawoo House.
If you read LA Times critic Jonathan Gold's annual top 101 restaurants list, you'll find that ultra-high end Providence is always his number one pick. Sure, you could go to Providence, spend five to seven hundred dollars and eat very delicately prepared seafood dishes, but I've always preferred Providence chef Michael Cimarusti's, casual, New England seafoood joint, Connie and Ted's where you can get hot buttery lobster rolls (as well as the cold version), fried clams with bellies, oysters galore and other great seafood staples. Plus, there are weekend brunch specials like a fried clam breakfast sandwich with egg and aged Hook's cheddar and one of the city's best Bloody Marys.
Happy eating! Did I leave anything out? Feel free to add or criticize in the comments, and if you're a local, I'd love to hear your top 10.