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Now reading Why LA Is the Best Eating City in America

Why LA Is the Best Eating City in America

A tour of the multidimensional, ever-changing puzzle of Los Angeles and its incredible restaurants.

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This comes from our “Los Angeles” issue, on newsstands now. For more stories like this, subscribe to the magazine

A few years ago, it was was heretical to say it: Los Angeles is the best eating city in the United States of America. Now, everyone just nods along, because it’s so true that to object would be embarrassing. We grumble about it here in New York, and there are all kinds of emerging hot spots that would prefer the crown be theirs. But it is not. The crown belongs to El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula, and probably has for years.

When we set out to publish an LA issue, I dreamed of writing a guide to LA restaurants that shared what I’ve learned over fifteen years of traveling there. But the truth is that your phone is what you look at when you want to know where to eat, and many of us are not in Los Angeles all of the time. So it seemed wiser to collect recipes from some of LA’s brighter kitchens, so we could make them at home.

It’s a relief, in a sense. I’ve spent the past four years eating with Jonathan Gold, the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, as regularly as I eat with anybody who’s not in my nuclear family. He has been my Virgil, and though I have the pleasure of getting to eat with him in person, he’s been everybody’s guide to where to eat in LA for so long that it’s hard to separate the city from what he says it is. The two are the same.

Making sense of the puzzle that is LA—a huge, diverse, always-changing place—is natural for him. He doesn’t flinch at two hours in traffic (one way!) for the chance of trying a new noodle place that might be marginally better than last month’s noodle crush. His mental map of Los Angeles is multidimensional: he knows which freeways cut through places where what once was X now is Y; he knows the good place in any strip mall and tends to know why and how the not-good places disappoint.

I’d have had to measure my list against the fact that Jonathan’s “101 Best Restaurants,” published annually in the LA Times, is better than anything I could attempt, reliable in the extreme, and thorough like the doctor in The Big Lebowski. I wouldn’t want to compare my descriptions to the prose of his weekly reviews, which are Talmudic in their authority and as welcoming as a sun-warmed backyard pool.

In this list I would have written, we would have started out where Los Angeles ends, at the Pacific Ocean, in Venice. That’s where Gjusta gives the beautiful, moneyed animals of Los Angeles’s Westside a premium way to mainline produce from the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. The food there has an I-just-rolled-out-of-bed-and-woke-up-beautiful casual rusticity to it. Then there’s Destroyer, in Culver City, where Jordan Kahn’s food has a type-A OCD via a hot-’80s-serial-killer sense of order and process to it. Both are represented in recipes here.

We would have headed east from there, maybe after lingering over a drink at Chez Jay up in Santa Monica, absentmindedly crushing peanut shells on the floor and watching the sun dip into the Pacific. It’d be hard not to duck into the Apple Pan, the burger-and-pie shop on Pico Boulevard, for a slice of banana-cream pie. (My friend Mark Ibold once described eating there like “being given the gift of time travel.”) Then there’s Shunji, the best sushi place in LA, and its signature nigiri—a shimmery piece of needlefish—that needs to be eaten, but what good does that do us in a recipe package? Neither you nor I know where to get great-quality needlefish, and how many years would either of us have to spend learning how to make sushi? We’ll leave it to the experts.

It’s the same way I feel about the savory maple-syrup macaron filled with galactically viscous egg yolk and candied bacon I ate at Spago: let’s leave that to the professionals who cater to the Beverly Hills crowd. That’s not us—not most days, anyway. The best normal-guy option in Beverly Hills has to be Nate ’n Al, a Jewish deli with a diner’s soul. The pastrami isn’t as good as Langer’s, but it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t order one.

The fact that Spago isn’t phoning it in when it so obviously could be is impressive, and we’ll talk about that as we move further east, toward Hollywood, where we’ll regret not going to the always-excellent Animal more often, or reminisce about the olden days, back when eating a bar steak at Lucques at ten p.m. was the only way to get in there. We’re not stopping in at Osteria Mozza or its sister restaurants, because Rachel Khong has you covered on that front, down to a recipe for Nancy’s Chopped Salad, which is superior to most other extant salads on earth. It would be very hard to skip Ludo Lefebvre’s Petit Trois or Trois Mec, seeing as they’re both also mind-shatteringly excellent.

When we’re stuck at a stoplight and you quizzically ask me about why Providence is always no. 1 on Gold’s list even though it seems so deeply un-Gold—a fancy, formal, expensive tasting-menu restaurant—I will humble-brag about the time I ate there with him and was grumpy that we weren’t in the San Gabriel Valley, but left completely blown away by every single course.

It was one of those meals during which you take pictures of everything because you can’t not, and when you scroll through the photos the next morning, you are even more impressed with it: with the turnips turned into dumpling wrappers filled with rich, buttery, garlicky crab; with the scallop sausage that was better than most scallops or sausages you’ve ever eaten; with whatever happened to the steak, which shut down all but the most animal functions of your cerebellum, even the urge to photograph it properly, and all you have is a snap of a half-eaten piece of beef and the menu’s description: “A5 wagyu, kabocha squash, pickled chanterelle, miso.” No clue how to bring that home to the kitchen.

We escape the Westside, and there’s Thai Town to pass through on the east side of Hollywood, where you will always consider eating at Jitlada, a strip-mall spot where southern-Thai fare is dished out by the electrically ebullient hostess and proprietor, Jazz, a one-name star in a city where everybody is trying to become one.

Ruen Pair is in a neighboring strip mall, and it’s the place you go when you need Thai and it’s too late to go anywhere else. (Pok Pok, in Chinatown, has late hours on the weekend, and a few plates of buffalo jerky and ice-cold Singhas consumed to a sound track of Thai psych records from the ’70s is always a good time.) We’ll sit by the giant shark tank and order things that sound terrible, because that’s what Jonathan does. One night he ordered us a plate of pork with olives—a combination that would raise eyebrows in Tuscany, much less in Thai Town—and said, as I had my first bite, “For the first few bites, you’re like, Why am I eating this? Then you realize it’s your God.” His words were perfectly in sync with my thoughts, like he was inside my brain. And after it, there was a plate of century eggs—those black, funky, aged things that look like they’re made of onyx—sautéed with basil to greater effect than I could ever have hoped for.

Further east is Silver Lake, where Kris Yenbamroong operates Night + Market Song. It is the encore to Night + Market, in West Hollywood, where he made his name as a young punk upstart cooking some of the city’s most scorching ‘n’ umami Thai food. He’s settled down now, six years in to being a chef; he’s got less to prove and more to share, and the menu at Song is all the better for it, a can’t-miss list of dishes delivered with an intoxicating laissez-faire confidence. (The specials tend toward things like scallop tostadas and just-made crab Rangoon–ish fried dumplings.) He and his wife and partner, Sarah St. Lifer, have gotten deep into natural wines of late, so now you can wash down your Thai feast with a river of effervescent grape juice that was fermented in somebody’s garage in the Republic of Georgia. Of course, we’ve published recipes from Kris before, and he’s got a cookbook coming out next year, so we’ll let him be.

At some point on this eating tour that I am not writing because this is a recipe package, we’ll break and get some sleep, and then it will be morning and the sky will be blue and clear and it’ll be time to eat again. I hate myself for how much I love Trois Familia, a “French-Mexican” restaurant open only for breakfast and lunch, run by three white dudes (Ludo, Jon, and Vinny) who have managed to claim as much space in this issue as they seem to have on the map of what’s awesome in Los Angeles. The menu at Trois Familia is appealingly concise and full of too-smart ideas. The Double-Decker Potato Taco, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch–mashed potato hybrid, is like a perfectly baited mousetrap for an Irishman whose initial concept of Mexican food came from Taco Bell. Of course we got the recipe.

It would be impossible to talk about breakfast in that part of town without addressing how and when and why to eat at Sqirl. Or how, if you were to get breakfast with Jessica Koslow, the chef behind Sqirl, she’d take you to Sapp Coffee Shop, a Thai spot that smells thickly of incense, even early in the morning. Boat noodles—noodles in a pork-blood-studded broth—are what many people go there for, but I think Jess and I are both jade-noodle people: roast pork and a pinch of crab over a nest of thin, matcha-green noodles. Gillian Ferguson, who did the legwork of recruiting recipes for this piece, tried her best at persuading Jintana Noochla-or, the proprietor of Sapp, to let us in on her noodle secrets. She said that everybody in the neighborhood has been trying to figure out her recipes for years and that she’s just four years from passing the business on to her son, so no luck for us.

Fortunately, Gillian was able to recruit Young-hee Shon’s son, Jenith, to pry the recipe for Seongbukdong’s galbijjim out of his mom. Much like Jintana, she said that all the other restaurants who specialize in galbijjim have been trying to figure out her “secret marinade” for the past ten years. (She knows that hers is the best in town; she and I are squarely in agreement on that point.) Perhaps because she has a bigger barbecue place opening down the street in six months, or perhaps because Jenith helped our campaign, she gave it to us. It’s excellent, of course, but it is missing something—maybe the magic that comes from having personally cooked five thousand pounds of short rib a month for decades.

And when you’re in Koreatown, which is where Seongbukdong is, you are close to so much. The restaurant itself is in a mall that’s home to Dan Sung Sa, one of the greatest places to drink until the wee hours. Gold initiated me to it with an order of corn cheese—a sizzling cast-iron pan of eternally out-of-season corn and anonymous cheese—and grapefruit makgeolli, a mixture of citrus juice and milky-white sparkling Korean hooch. I don’t know that I like either of those things in the light of day, but late at night at Dan Sung Sa, there’s nothing better. There are other options for drinking, like the charmingly run-down OB Bear, where the fried chicken is decent. But the fried chicken wings and the rice-cake nachos from the bar at The Line, the hotel where Roy Choi runs the food and where I like to stay when I’m in town, are better. And then there are the old-line places: the HMS Bounty, an oddly nautical dive bar with nice, big booths and wooden walls and great vibes, and The Prince, which was clearly a tony red-velvet steakhouse at some point until it was taken over by Korean owners, who have maintained the interior like museum curators while replacing its bill of fare with sticky, sweet fried wings and cubes of stinky pickled daikon. In the company of a few bottles of flavorless American or Korean lager, it’s a hard place to pass up.

I’m dawdling here, aren’t I? Maybe it’s the makgeolli. But there’s still Bonjuk, a restaurant patronized, in my experience, exclusively by older Korean ladies, where I like to eat calmingly bland Korean porridge for breakfast. And also Sun Nong Dan, my buddy David Chang’s favorite Korean restaurant in LA. (Their galbijjim—rustic, big enough for at least two, and served sizzling in a big stone dish—is his go-to.) But this is a recipe package, not an eating guide, so I’ll skip over the tabletop barbecue mastery of Park’s BBQ (which I once wrongly thought had been surpassed by Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, an error Mr. Gold never forgets to remind me about), and only quickly mention the heartbreakingly delicious little steamed dumplings, served on dainty towelettes, at Chungsil Hongsil.

Before we leave Koreatown, how about we grab one more recipe, this one from Bricia Lopez, proprietor of a giant Oaxacan restaurant in a building with a pagoda roof down on Olympic Boulevard called Guelaguetza? Guelaguetza is affordable and family friendly—the kid’s menu is great—and packed to the rafters most nights with what feels like hundreds of people. I’d always liked mole—that thick, rich sauce that has dozens of iterations and is a signature of Oaxacan cuisine— before going to Guelaguetza, but never loved it. Guelaguetza changed that. The restaurant’s mole sampler, a tray of four bowls of sauce with shredded chicken, a dish of rice, and a stack of warm tortillas, is evidence not only of the spellbindingly complex heights to which mole can ascend, but also a lesson in how complete a food it is: I could dip pieces of an old cardboard box in Guelaguetza’s mole and be happy.

The recipe Bricia gave us was not for a Oaxacan classic, but for a bowl of quinoa and hard-roasted brussels sprouts dressed with a mole vinaigrette—a dish she devised for her husband, she told us, since he’s stopped eating meat. It’s fantastic and possible to make at home, which would be harder to say if she had instead given us directions to fry grasshoppers (my conversion from bug-o-phobe to grasshopper-taco eater happened at Guelaguetza, where the chapulines are a must) or the nubby little Oaxacan chorizo they serve that I have no idea where to buy.

I guess we could look for it at Grand Central Market, a fixture of Downtown Los Angeles, where so much is changing and so much isn’t. Its streets seem to be home to fewer down-on-their-luck people than they did fifteen years ago, when I first visited; I remember walking through Grand Central then, which seemed mostly Latino and probably unchanged for decades. Now it’s home to places like Madcapra, the falafel-and-flatbread mecca from chefs Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, and DTLA Cheese, home to an incapacitating array of fancy cheeses, and more. There are less-nouveau spots still going strong, like Sarita’s Pupuseria and Ana Maria, and I hope they all stick around until I have a chance to eat at them all.

We were supposed to be grocery shopping, and there I go blabbing on about restaurants again. We’ll pick up the next recipe on a quick cruise through Chinatown, but let’s first stop at the Mariscos Jalisco truck for a fried-shrimp taco dorado or three. Just watch out for the fiery aguachile tostada: the last time I ate it, I didn’t know if I’d ever regain my ability to taste.

Almost as spicy as that tostada is the chiles toreados taco at Guisados, a taco shop that has opened multiple locations around the city, though I think (probably baselessly) that the one in Boyle Heights, the storefront where the nixtamal for their thick, golden tortillas is made, is still the best. I’ve eaten many perfect tacos at Guisados: one of pig skin simmered into submission; one of tinga de pollo, a personal favorite, which we were lucky enough to get the recipe for; and the chiles toreados, a taco so spicy I don’t know how one could eat it completely. Gold and I split one, as I recall, before we both started involuntarily crying and drooling and the people behind the counter had a good chuckle before bringing us little cups of horchata to try to dull the pain.

Another brilliant taco place that’s not even a place at all yet is Guerrilla Tacos, Wes Avila’s roving truck operation. Wes’s tacos are filled with all sorts of well-sourced and smartly cooked things, like sweet potatoes and charred leeks. We got the recipe for his sweet-potato tacos because they’re delicious and because they’re a great juxtaposition to the Trois Familia potato taco—one a Frenchman making “Mexican” food, the other a Mexican-American guy taking French technique and wrapping it in a tortilla.

I would love to keep talking tacos—about the Tijuana-style tacos, piled high with creamy guacamole, that Jonathan introduced me to at the Tacos Los Poblanos stand at a South Central swap meet, or at the Santa Rita Jalisco taco truck, where he and I did our best not to choke on the tiny bones in the deep-fried-chicken-neck tacos we ate, surrounded by families with children doing their homework.

But all things must come to an end, even a collection of recipes. To finish off, we will go east to the San Gabriel Valley, where the shallowness of my experience of eating in LA and my total inability to write a dining guide would be most grotesquely evidenced. We’re not even going to talk about Golden Deli or pho or anything, because we’re heading straight to Mian, Chengdu Taste’s new noodle-shop concept, for a Sichuan noodle recipe, and it’s important to stay focused.

Mian is right across the street from Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village, an opulent restaurant in a second-floor mall space with resolutely delicious food and the best sheng jian bao in the greater LA area. It’s also down the road from San Gabriel Square—a shopping complex that could be aptly and profitably rebranded as the Great Mall of China for all the good stuff that’s in it. There is fine dim sum up on the top floor (not as good as at Sea Harbour, fine, I grant you that, but I’ve done a lot worse) and No. 1 Juicy Dumpling (aka Wang Xing Ji, though recently renamed to Long Xing Ji), where I was fed what I am told are “the best Wuxi-style xiao long bao.” Guiltily, I don’t even know what makes them “Wuxi-style,” so, like a simpleton, I might just say they were the best soup dumplings I’ve ever had and leave it at that.

Which reminds me of the first time I went to Chengdu Taste, a Sichuan restaurant that Gold put on the map with the kind of praise that would have required a five-star review in a four-star system. We went late, almost at closing time, thereby missing out on the line, which can be formidable during the dinner rush. Everything was a revelation. The dan dan noodles, the dumplings in red oil, all the things I’d eaten a million times before: suddenly I was seeing them in neon, fluorescent color when they had once been in black and white. It reminded me of a section in Land of Plenty, Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbook that runs down the twenty-three combinations of flavors that define Sichuan cuisine. Usually, the only thing we ever really taste is ma la—numbing and spicy—and this place deals from a full deck: the real thing, done right and done well.

I couldn’t have been more excited by the news that Chengdu Taste had spun off a noodle shop, where they serve big tin mugs of noodle cooking water as a beverage and the Chengdu ZaJiang noodles that chef Alex Feng so kindly shows us how to make here.

Maybe at some point, we’ll teach ourselves the difference between Chengdu and Chongqing cooking, because Jonathan has mentioned a few times that these guys do it Chengdu style, but we don’t really know what that means. So we’d do our best to bring Chengdu style into our kitchens at home, and keep on reading, and keep on eating, and keep on falling more and more in love with Los Angeles, even if it felt like we’d never ever wrap our brains around understanding it at all.