The restaurant has grown up, proprietor Nguyen Tran assures you. He almost never wears his banana suit anymore. His kitchen crew doesn't necessarily show up to events dressed as wookiees. And Thi Tran's spicy-sweet Singapore chili crab, probably the only palatable version in Southern California, still needs to be reserved a couple of days in advance, because he has to order the plump creatures from a guy he knows up north. In the last year, Starry Kitchen has transformed — but it has transformed from a semi-permanent pan-Asian pop-up in a sleek fashion district lunchroom into a semi-permanent pan-Asian pop-up in an old-Chinatown dive, which means that the fried rice with pork belly and dried seafood, the crunchy sea bass tails and the fried tofu balls feel oddly consonant with the plastic chopsticks and the bartenders whose idea of an old-fashioned includes half a dozen maraschino cherries mashed into a crimson slurry. Do try the clay pot sea bass cooked in a complex Vietnamese caramel sauce. And stick around for the disco, if that's your thing.
When the subject of mole comes up in Los Angeles, and it comes up more often than you might think, Rocio Camacho is always part of the discussion. She has expanded beyond the traditional black mole and even past Oaxaca's famous seven, to an almost infinite repertoire of the complex, spicy sauce, including moles made with pistachios, with toasted coffee beans and with cactus and mezcal. Is the mole made with the mushroomy corn fungus huitlacoche really the Mole of the Goddesses? That's up to you. But you can also get an oddly satisfying bowl of cream of grasshopper soup.
In Koreatown, the question is not what the best restaurant might be, but what the best restaurant might be for the particular food you might be craving at the moment: Jeon Ju for bibimbap, Soban for marinated crab, Dae Bok for spicy blowfish soup, Bon Juk for abalone porridge. In Koreatown, and in Korea, restaurants specialize. Which is why, when you walk into Kobawoo, every table will be sporting an order of bossam: a combination plate of boiled pork belly, turnip kimchi, sliced chiles and fermented tiny fish, which you wrap into spicy cabbage-leaf bundles. Kobawoo may be a great place to go for crisp seafood pancakes, game hen stuffed with ginseng and sticky rice, and pig's feet pressed into a cool, gelatinous terrine, but its bossam is unsurpassed.
The Mexicali-style tacos are pretty spectacular at this tidy storefront near Dodger Stadium, packed into the small, plump flour tortillas the owners bring up from Baja a couple of times a week. You can even get a vegan taco if that's your thing. You sprinkle them with pickled onions, moisten them with fluid taquería guacamole and a spoonful of habanero salsa, and you're good to go. But like everybody else, you will probably end up with at least one vampiro, a large flour tortilla folded over chorizo, chicken or charbroiled carne asada, maybe all three, as well as a squirt or two of garlic sauce and what can technically be described as a boatload of gooey, stretchy melted Mexican cheese.
A lot of the people I know have defected to the new Pho Filet in Rosemead for its northern-style pho with filet mignon, and Pho Thanh Lich in Little Saigon is probably worth an hour's drive from anywhere. Why then does the line outside Golden Deli stretch halfway to infinity on weekends? Because it always has; because the restaurant has set the pho standard in the San Gabriel Valley since Duran Duran was at the top of the charts; and because the cha gio, crackly skinned imperial rolls stuffed with pork and crab among other things, are good on an almost intergalactic level, even if the purists claim that they're a little too big.
"Polenta?" asked co-owner Kristen Trattner. "You're coming here and you're ordering polenta?" Nickel Diner may attract more loft-dwellers than artists these days, there are leeks and fontina in Monica May's scrambled eggs, and pastry chef Emily Acevedo has been exploring the universe beyond bacon-maple doughnuts, but this is still deep downtown, a half block from the infamous stretch of 5th Street that troubadours like Tom Waits used to sing about. Pancakes and thick-cut bacon, fried catfish and corn cakes, Lowrider burgers and onion rings — that's why you go to the Nickel, which caters as much to the local street people as it does to the tax attorneys who roll in on skateboards. I relent and get an order of biscuits and gravy, with a chicken-apple sausage on the side. The polenta, by the way, is excellent.
Hunan cooking, which tends toward simmered organs, fermented vegetables and oiliness, is not, at first encounter, the friendliest of China's cuisines. At Hunan Mao, house-cured ham is forest-fire smoky, like Memphis barbecue times 10, even when chopped and fried with handfuls of dried long beans, a handful of garlic cloves, and the vivid red and green chopped chiles that dominate almost everything here. The giant steamed fish heads are comically large, frosted with the chopped blend of dried, fresh and fermented chiles that give Hunanese cooking its reputation for head-snapping heat. Mao's braised pork, a sweet, slightly spicy clay-potful of thick-cut braised pork belly and garlic named for Hunan's favorite son, is almost unbearably rich. And the wall TV is occasionally tuned to things like a broadcast plenary of the National People's Congress, which is distinctly not the Dodgers game. Should you go anyway? You don't want to miss the cucumber toss-fried with shiso.
Mexican cooking in Los Angeles has changed a lot since Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken opened their first Border Grill in the 1980s, and it is no longer unusual to find ingredients sourced from the Yucatan, margaritas made with top-shelf tequila or standard dishes transformed with expensive, organic ingredients. The restaurant, its chefs and its cookbooks have been around so long that it is easy to take them for granted, as breathtaking as its stuffed steak and pescado Veracruzano were when we all first tasted them. But still, nobody has managed to marry the freshness of the California kitchen with the deep, complex flavors of Mexican cooking in quite the way that Feniger and Milliken do, and if you ran across their ceviche, pork-steak carnitas or squash tacos in an Eastside dive, you would be as happy as a lime-marinated clam.
The foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains are home to some of the best ice cream in California, including the all-American Main Street creaminess of Mother Moo in Sierra Madre and the farmers market freshness of the original Carmela. But even the glories of Mother Moo's three-milk ice cream fade in comparison with the gelati of Leo Bulgarini, who is nearly as fanatical about his gelato as he is about his hometown AS Roma soccer team; he is especially adept at capturing the flavors of ripe, local fruit. It is hard to say what is better: his goat's milk gelato with toasted cocoa nibs, the yogurt gelato with sea salt and olive oil, the blood orange sorbetto or the gelato he makes with the ultra-pricey Bronte pistachios he hand-carries from Sicily. House policy at Bulgarini mandates a three-scoop minimum, at $2.50 per.
If you are a certain kind of food guy, it is almost a sacred duty to dismiss the Musso & Frank Grill, where a large part of the menu remains largely unchanged from 1919 and where the avocado cocktail and kidneys Turbigo could not be further from the kinds of things they are serving at Red Medicine or Trois Mec. The steaks, chops and sand dabs are fine, although you'd probably do better at Mastro's or even Taylor's. Yet it is hard to imagine Hollywood without Musso's wooden booths, Manny's martinis or the chicken pot pie on Thursdays. The Welsh rarebit and shrimp Louie are unchanged from when you and your grandfather were children, and the flannel cakes are still the best consolation for late risers in town.
There are many ways to become famous in Los Angeles, but I'm guessing Sergio Peñuelas may have been the very first chef to make his reputation as a master of snook. Pescado zarandeado is an important preparation in coastal Sinaloa, but the odd techniques involved, which include smearing whole, butterflied snook with seasoned mayonnaise and jiggling the fish over hot charcoal until the flesh caramelizes, are not quite in the traditional poissonnière's repertoire — although once you taste the snook, you may think they should be. Coni'Seafood may also have a large menu of delicious seafood cocktails and shrimp dishes, some made with seafood the restaurant brings up itself from Mazatlan, but it is not the aguachile that has inspired a generation of Angelenos to make sure Peñuelas is in the kitchen before they hop in the car. The restaurant is fairly close to LAX and the Forum.
When you are up for Korean barbecue, you could choose the restaurant that features Piedmontese beef, the restaurant that lets you cook over coconut charcoal or one of the many, many places that specialize in all-you-can-eat volleys of charred beast. Or you could get in line and wait for a table at Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong, where you will pass between life-sized cardboard cutouts of Mr. Kang himself, sit around a tabletop grill under a wrestling poster and eat ungodly amounts of barbecued pork neck, bulgogi and pork belly, probably chosen from one of the two set dinners. Oddly, Baekjeong may be your best option, if only for the bottomless troughs of corn cheese and scrambled eggs set into the grill.
The typhoon-shelter crab at Seafood Village is good. The suckling pig at Lunasia can be splendid. But while there may be a more festive Chinese dish than the house special lobster at Newport, it is hard to think of what it might be. The fearsome beasts, 5 pounds and up, fried with fistfuls of chopped chiles, scallions and garlic, are more than a match for any tableful of ravenous, nutcracker-armed souls. You will almost certainly order the sweet-spicy Vietnamese-style "shaking beef," the pea leaves sautéed with garlic and maybe the clams with basil, but it is the lobster that will set you free.
Each fall, Chichén Itzá's Gilberto Cetina junior and senior make it a point to serve mucbi pollo, vast, rustic tamales made from special masa that are crunchy where you would expect them to be moist and that are at the center of the Yucatan's Day of the Dead feasts. It would be hard to imagine a preparation more typically Yucatecan, almost Maya, especially if you accompany it with a glass of agua de chaya, a sweeted drink made from an old Maya herb. And it is hard to imagine a Los Angeles restaurant more Yucatecan than Chichén Itzá, a lunch counter in the La Paloma complex named for the vast temple complex north of Cancún, whose menu is a living, habanero-intensive thesaurus of the panuchos and codzitos, sopa de lima and papadzules, banana-leaf tamales and shark casseroles that make up one of Mexico's spiciest cuisines. Chichén Itzá could pass for one of the better market restaurants in Mérida.
We have been enjoying Joachim Splichal's cooking for decades in Los Angeles, from his earliest days at the Seventh Street Bistro, through the brilliant Max au Triangle in Beverly Hills through the original Patina on Melrose, which opened 25 years ago and launched a sleek, new era of local cuisine. More great chefs may have passed through Splichal's kitchens than any other in town — and it is hard to believe that this grand, luxurious restaurant in Walt Disney Concert Hall is itself 10 years old. Has Patina settled a bit into grande dame status these days, perhaps more intent on getting its patrons out in time for the symphony than in pushing the boundaries of cuisine? I suspect even its most loyal customers might agree — except during game season, when the notion of wood pigeon and hare tends to flush gourmets from hiding.
Nobu Matsuhisa is a Japanese chef who formed his style at sushi bars in Peru. Ricardo Zarate is a Peruvian chef who spent his formative years working at sushi bars in London. Zarate's Picca is a look at the mash-up of Peruvian flavors and Japanese techniques from the other side of the divide, where the difference between yakitori and anticuchos is a matter of semantics, where causa becomes sushi with mashed potatoes in place of rice, and where the line between ceviches and sashimi probably has more to do with the sweet potato on the side than in the quality of preparation or the fish. Peruvian izakaya is a concept whose time has come. The Julian Cox-designed Peruvian cocktails are sublime.
Specializing in seafood cocktails, ceviches of fish or shrimp marinated in citrus, or aguachiles of raw seafood soaked in lime and puréed chiles, the mariscos truck is as much a part of Eastside culture as the murals, pan dulce and música norteña. Your favorite truck is as much a part of your identity as your favorite ranchera singer. But first among them is the Mariscos Jalisco truck in Boyle Heights, eternally parked in front of a former wholesaler's office, where Raul Ortega also serves his famous crunchy fried shrimp tacos in the style of San Juan de Los Lagos, his Jalisco hometown. Ortega tends to sweep the field in street-food competitions — if life were just, Ortega would be a wealthy man, and you would see his face plastered on airport concessions, glossy chain restaurants and cerveza ads.
You may prefer the posh of Chosun, the user-friendliness of Genwa or the funk of Soot Bull Jeep. Nobody will look down on you if you yearn for the sweet, cold noodles at the Corner Place as much as you do its unmarinated galbi or pine for the all-you-can eat mayhem at Oo Kook. But when your priorities in a Korean barbecue restaurant run more toward high-grade meat than toward a particular ambience, you are probably already a fan of Park's, where the pricey Wagyu boneless short ribs, prime rib-eye and butter-soft beef tongue are of the highest possible standard, and the stone-pot octopus and hand-chopped beef tartare with pear and sesame oil are among the very best in town. Places like Soowon and Star King are edging forward in Koreatown's world of luxury meats, but Park's still has the top end of K-Town barbecue to itself.
Do you like octopus bacon? Of course you like octopus bacon. It's chewy, crisp and smoky, made with this year's it mollusk and comes with both a bit of pine nut panna cotta and a sweet caper purée. You could put a recipe for the dish into a time capsule and, 200 years from now, it will still taste exactly like 2014, provided octopuses, capers and pine trees still flourish on the Earth. Superba, Jason Neroni's open-air restaurant in a neighborhood where the fixed-gear bicycles can outnumber cars, serves what you might call abstracted Italian, incorporating tastes and textures associated with Italian cooking into dishes that would be unrecognizable in Rome: grilled cauliflower T-bones with puréed basil, citrus and olives; "porchetta di testa" cured to resemble pastrami on rye; and cacio e pepe enhanced with miso. If the restaurant has a specialty, it is probably the pastas: handmade, slightly stiff and leaning toward excess. Bring a good book — there's going to be a wait.
When people complain about the restaurants on Ventura Boulevard, Mantee is probably the kind of place they have in mind. The main dining room is as tchotchke-infested as your great-aunt's house, and the dining patio feels like somebody's backyard. The menu is almost identical to that of a dozen other Middle Eastern restaurants you've been to, and whoever runs it is overly fond of the Gipsy Kings. Yet a single bite of the suave, garlicky hummus, flaky cheese borek or the impossibly thick drained yogurt called labneh is enough to let you know you are at a different kind of Lebanese-Armenian restaurant here, one related to one of the better-known Armenian restaurants in Beirut. The kebab in sour cherry sauce, the purslane-intensive toasted-pita salad fattoush and the namesake dish, a platter of tiny beef dumplings sizzling in a bath of garlicky yogurt, are like nothing else in Los Angeles.
Ethiopian food should by all rights be the most exotic of world cuisines, governed by an elaborate schedule of feasting and fasting, scented with fiery aromatics that rarely make it out of the area and based on a floppy, sour flatbread that looks, as Calvin Trillin once wrote, as if it has a hundred industrial uses, not including being used as food. The gift of Genet Agonafer is that she is able to weave Ethiopian flavors into something as familiar as Sunday dinner at your grandmother's house, at least if your grandmother was in the habit of simmering the chicken for her doro wot with cloves and bishop's weed for the better part of three days, arranging vegetarian stews around a platter with an artist's aplomb or mincing raw beef for the spiced tartare kitfo with the careful abandon that a Thai master shows his larb. Looked at in isolation, Agonafer's cooking may be as wild as that of her funkier Little Ethiopia neighbors, but the final impression is of a genteel, old-fashioned bistro.
Sapp passed its first couple of decades as Thai Town's quiet underachiever, a drowsy lunchroom where you found yourself because the glamorous restaurants in the neighborhood never opened before dark. Then everybody realized that Sapp's fragrant roast duck noodles, jade noodles with Chinese barbecue and grilled sausage with peanuts were what they wanted all along: Thai food cooked for people who ate Thai food every day. The gray-looking nam sod, a ground-pork salad spiked with slithery bits of pig's ear and a generous shot of lime, is the sort of thing you find yourself craving the moment you step onto an outbound plane. And in a part of town devoted to boat noodle soup, the funky, spicy amalgamation of beef broth, ground blood and offal, Sapp's version is the one you want to be facing down after a night of excess.
You've probably heard that the place to go for Indian food is the Little India neighborhood in Artesia, and this isn't wrong. You can find a lot of pleasure at the better regional restaurants on Pioneer Boulevard, including Jay Bharat, Rajdhani, Woodlands and Mumbai Ki Galliyon Si. But Mayura, just a block from the studios in Culver City, is the only place in the Los Angeles area to specialize in the complex cooking of Kerala, a largely vegetarian region on India's south coast, and if you are adventurous enough to try the buttery cashew rice called ven pongal instead of biryani, fermented-rice appam instead of roti, and the coconut-zapped avial instead of almost anything, you will be deliriously happy here. The dosas are pretty great too. Mayura has a separate kitchen preparing halal meat dishes in the north Indian mode, so if you're craving tandoori chicken or Pakistani-style nehari, you'll be fine.
Fried Chicken Monday — sure, there's Fried Chicken Monday. More than one person we know likes to arrange her week around Daniel Mattern's crackly pan-fried chicken and a cut of Roxana Jullapat's ice cream pie. But if you are the kind of person who stops by a farmers market twice a week, seeks out grass-fed lamb and daydreams about selling jars of lemon curd on Etsy, the food at Cooks County is going to seem pretty familiar. Mattern's cooking incorporates not just the seasons but also the microseasons of Southern California produce so that you can probably set your watch by the moment wild nettles join the green garlic with the lamb. It's not a particular dish you fall in love with here, it's the sensibility — and maybe the grilled seafood soup, the asparagus fries and Jullapat's homey fruit desserts.
If you were going to design the perfect taquería, it might look a lot like Armando De La Torre's original Guisados in Boyle Heights. The tortillas are made from fresh nixtamal ground several times an hour at the tortillería next door, and the fillings tend to be long-simmered stews. Vegetarians are as happy with the stewed calabacita as carnivores are with the cochinito pibil. And fire eaters take pleasure in the chiles toreados, made from peppers De La Torre grows in his backyard. I once heard a rumor that I was in the habit of eating three chiles torreados tacos in a sitting, which I believe to be a physical impossibility. But if you should ever be tempted to give it a try, you can take comfort in knowing that the White Memorial emergency room is just down the street.
The Westside Tehrangeles neighborhood is thick with Iranian restaurants of every description, many of them plush dining rooms with long menus of kebabs, thick stews and tanor bread made to order. You'd probably choose Flame or Javan for a feast of fesenjan or grilled lamb. But Attari is a slice of Tehran high society transplanted onto a leafy Westwood patio, exquisitely tailored expats sipping tea and eating the thick Iranian soup called osh or crisp French bread sandwiches stuffed with slices of kuku, a bright-green frittata that is at least half fresh herbs by weight. On Fridays, the mandatory order is abgoosht, a complex, delicious stew of lamb and chickpeas mashed into a thick, homogeneous paste with the texture of refried beans, alongside a bowl of its expressed essence served as soup. The full-service Attari Grill, with an extensive Persian menu, is next door, but things always seem happier at the original sandwich shop.
When you wander into Ración after a movie in Old Town Pasadena, you may be expecting the basic tapas you find everywhere in Los Angeles. Instead, there are crisp, gooey chicken croquettes, grilled leeks with smoked olive oil, lamb meatballs, duck sausage-stuffed squid and pintxos (bruschetta, more or less) of crab salad accented with anchovy, squid griddled with lemon and onions, or sliced tongue with pickled scallions. Loretta Peng and chef Teresa Montano are serving their version of Basque-style tapas, the stuff of San Sebastian's back alleys, inspired by rather than exactly duplicating Basque flavors. Montano's cooking is becoming more assured by the month. The wine list includes not one but three Txakolinas, as well as Basque ciders and the hard-to-find Rueda from Belondrade y Lurton, which is among the most delicious of all Spanish whites.
Do we mourn the original Mo-Chica in the La Paloma complex two miles south? Indeed we do. The vortex of Peruvian flavors, sushi-quality seafood, skilled chef and working-class customers marked a special moment in the democratization of cuisine. But Ricardo Zarate is building a restaurant empire now. And the food at this Mo-Chica is really good, mostly Peruvian classics reinterpreted as cocktail snacks, which is to say papas a la huancaina, carapulcra, tiradito and lomo saltado reduced in size, zapped with Peruvian chiles and served with Pisco sours and Peruvian beer. If you've been yearning to try an alpaca burger, at Mo-Chica you have your chance.
Many people come here for the sticky pecan rolls, the walnut galettes or the chewy peanut-coconut bars, and it is hard to blame them. The Sycamore is the breakfast-lunch restaurant of Quinn and Karen Hatfield, and it is a chance to taste Karen's pastries without the expense or trouble of the tasting menu at their restaurant Hatfields. There are salads too, big ones with perfect greens and tiny sparks of things like hazelnuts and blue cheese; bruschetta topped with things like homemade ricotta and a mosaic of citrus fruit; and sandwiches stuffed with turkey, cherry mostarda and just-ripe Camembert. The BLTs are enhanced with oozing slabs of pork belly. The potato chips are disks of the purest crunch. And if you get there before they sell out, you should also get the pastry called kouign amann, a.k.a. buttercup, whose perfect caramelization should be taught at every cooking school in the world.
The first thing you should know about Taco María is that it doesn't serve tacos, not at dinner anyway. It's a prix-fixe tasting menu restaurant from Carlos Salgado, who used to cook at highbrow places like Coi and Commis in the Bay Area, and now runs this tiny dining patio in the new OC Mix design center. Four courses, plated as beautifully as anything you'll see at Alma or Providence, run $52, which is not expensive for this level of cooking. Salgado calls what he does "Chicano cuisine," which also may not prepare you for dishes like his delicate asparagus velouté with Meyer lemon zest, spring garlic and warm curls of chicharrones; roast guinea fowl with mole; or his trompe l'oeil chorizo made with spiced mushrooms instead of meat. Then again, if he sold his fiery kanpachi aguachile from the window of a truck parked in Santa Ana, he might have a line of mariscos-crazed regulars stretched around the block.
Recreational space travel may be some years in the future, and none of us is yet commuting in flying cars, but at least we can all experience the burger of the future, warmed in a high-tech oven before it is seared on the griddle, frosted with seaweed-enhanced cheese, flavored with a translucent square of ketchup leather and tucked into an otherworldly crunch bun. Ernesto Uchimura's creation is a burger, except that it's not quite a burger, except that it really might be, like the re-engineered sports cars that drive better than the real thing. Anyway, there is Japanese whiskey to drink with it, if you're into that sort of thing, homemade sodas and French fries sizzled in rendered suet. Awesome.
It is hard to believe that the Grill on the Alley is turning 30 this year, its upscale homage to places like Musso's and San Francisco's Tadich Grill nearly as ancient, at least in Hollywood terms, as its inspirations. If it is possible to measure out one's life in whiskey sours, cowboy rib-eyes and Caesar salad, then many of us have done that here, although I suspect some of the Hollywood players who populate the restaurant at lunchtime may just be pushing their Cobb salads or whitefish around their plates. (Perhaps, if fashions were otherwise, they might have ordered the corned beef hash well done.) But everybody looks good at the Grill, which is lighted as carefully as a George Hurrell photograph.
It still feels odd to spill through the doors of this former cocktail lounge, and you might want to temper your enthusiasm for sangrita-backed tequila shots if you're the one driving home from Bell. But Eduardo Ruiz's wonderland of chopped-and-channeled street food and cheesy Mexican booze has mellowed into a pretty serious restaurant, the slithery pigskin salad and giant turkey legs tempered by long-roasted pork shoulder, braised Argentine short ribs and wild-boar chilaquiles. Open your mind: That carnitas terrine with Coca-Cola gelee may be exactly what you crave.
La Casita is twice the size it used to be, you'll be happy to hear. You can get a glass of wine now (although you'll still want the alfalfa drink), and you can call for a reservation if you want one. Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvisu's modest cenaduría has evolved into the showcase it has always deserved to be, the place to go for lengthy Lenten meals or a quick plate of morning chilaquiles, lavish feasts of vegetables pulled from nearby community gardens or straightforward plates of carne asada, fish grilled in hoja santa leaves or an improbably good version of chiles en nogada, the meat-stuffed chile lavished with pomegranate seeds and sweet cream that is Mexico's national dish.
It is a cool night, and you have made it past the throng at the bar, and you are out on the patio at Gjelina, not far from the fire pit, contemplating the wonder of a crisp little pizza with shaved asparagus and egg, or fennel salami and caramelized fennel, or eggplant, green zebra tomato, garlic and parmesan, or maybe a plate of grilled pork collar with house-made kimchi. There are a lot of vegetables here — Travis Lett's vaguely Italian cooking has what you might call a co-dependent relationship with the farmers market. The scene, heavily populated with actors, may be as crunchy as the wood-fired pizza crust. Gjelina is everything that might persuade a snowbound New Yorker to change coasts.
Everyone knows that Langer's serves the best pastrami sandwich in Los Angeles. Guidebooks say so. National magazines say so. The MTA Red Line disgorges so many Langer's-bound fressers that it has sometimes been called the Pastrami Express. Distinguished chefs flirting with putting pastrami on their menus rarely do so without at least a nod to the noble deli masters of Westlake. Still, if you haven't been to Langer's in a few years, you might be surprised to see the long lines outside the delicatessen on a Saturday afternoon, supplicants waiting for their shot at the No. 19, a baroque concoction of hand-cut pastrami, Swiss cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing on double-baked rye bread. The Westlake neighborhood may have lost its last vestiges of Jewishness sometime before the Vietnam War, but the pleasures of pastrami will not be denied.
Is the most attitudinous gastropub in Los Angeles located in Echo Park? It is not. Playground is in downtown Santa Ana, which may be the few blocks of Orange County that most bring to mind the words "urban grit." You will have heard of maybe two or three of the beers on their lengthy tap list, you will wonder how Lime Truck vet Jason Quinn managed to score A5 Miyazaki rib-eye cap to grill and you will wonder why he serves his grilled octopus with pickled pig's tongue. Did all the good new chefs in Orange County come from the world of food trucks? It is beginning to seem that way.
Bucato's mission, broadly defined, is to combine strong pungencies and seasonal vegetables with the suppleness of fresh, well-cooked pasta — mixed by hand, rolled out by hand and shaped by hand. Evan Funke's Italian training came in Emilia-Romagna, home to egg-enriched pasta, but the noodles he prefers are made with only flour, water and salt: hand-rolled pici, like thick, Tuscan spaghetti, with a long-cooked rabbit sauce; corzetti, flexible pasta coins from Liguria, with a mortar-ground walnut sauce; or a delicious but anti-Roman cacio e pepe that breaks every known rule. Bucato is a great place to stop into for a glass of Vermentino and a snack of fried squash blossoms stuffed with goat ricotta. And on the patio on a warm night, it is easy to imagine that you are on the terrace of an Italian country restaurant instead of outside a former industrial laundry in downtown Culver City.
The latest hero on the anti-fusion block is Tin Vuong, chef and owner of the Manhattan Beach restaurant Little Sister. Vuong grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, worked his way up through grand hotel kitchens and has spent the last couple of years as chef at the Hermosa Beach gastropub Abigaile. His beef tartare melds Korean raw-beef dish yuk hwe, Sichuan peppercorns, French bone-marrow paste, Vietnamese herbs and Indonesian-style cassava chips. His salt-and-pepper lobster comes straight out of Hong Kong too, but its fragrance hints at the lush, tropical flavors of southeast Asia. And the takes on nem nuong, banh xeo and chao tom come straight out of Little Saigon. There has always been a dark vein of anarchy just beneath the beachy surface in the South Bay, and in his own quiet way, Vuong wants to blow your mind.
Whatever cultural tide it was that brought us gourmet pimento cheese, garage sale crockery in expensive restaurants and French wine decanted into jelly jars has probably passed. But it can't be denied: However ironically the Southern grandma-cooking revival may have been, the food was pretty good. It turns out that you don't have to have skinny jeans and interesting facial hair to enjoy fried chicken skin with homemade Tabasco sauce, crab dip or lemon ice box pie. And when you're ready for cheese grits, hushpuppies or feather-light angel biscuits with blackberry preserves, the Hart & the Hunter will be waiting for you.
There may not be another Los Angeles chef whose name is invoked as frequently as that of Nobu Matsuhisa, whose introduction of the sushi chef into the traditional restaurant line may have been one of the most important innovations since Escoffier and whose marriage of Latin flavors with modern Japanese technique sometimes seems to have inspired half the restaurants in Los Angeles. And as flashy as his Nobu restaurants can be, as vast as his global empire has become, the heart of Matsuhisa's cooking still seems to be in his modest original sushi bar, the place where new-style sashimi with heated olive oil, turbo-charged ceviche and Ferrari-sleek tiradito first learned to speak Japanese.
The Lebanese kitchen is at the center of Middle Eastern assimilation, the place where flavors from the Mediterranean and central Asia, Europe and the Levant come together into a cuisine as shimmeringly multicultural as that of Los Angeles itself. And at the center of Lebanese cooking here are Serge and Sosi Brady, whose splendid array of the garlicky small dishes called mezze, their roast chicken and barbecued quail, fried sardines and grilled sausages, Lebanese wine and house-made jallab have defined the local Lebanese-Armenian kitchen in Hollywood for more than 25 years. The photomurals of the Cedars of Lebanon have become a bit tattered, but the cooking becomes more vibrant year after year.
Your table is covered two-deep with tiny plastic plates. You have seen the bottom of a michelada or two. You are at Colonia Taco Lounge, the newest and possibly most consequential restaurant from Guisados founder Ricardo Diaz, a land of horchata-battered shrimp tacos, lamb barbacoa tacos, cheese and chayote tacos and tacos made with chicken tesmole, an herb-intensive Oaxacan preparation thickened with corn. The best tacos in the house may be the ones made with florets of battered, fried cauliflower — crunchy, soft and then crunchy again; the sulfurous funkiness of the vegetable mellowed and made soulful by the sharpness of the capers in the salsa and the merest touch of cream. Are we living in the golden age of the California taco? We may be.
The Din Tai Fung experience, it could be argued, is essentially that of waiting in line; the keen anticipation of xiao long bao, Shanghai-style soup dumplings, drawn out into a soft note of purest longing. The miracle is that when you finally pop the plump, round dumpling into your mouth, searing the top of your mouth when it bursts into a flood of fragrant broth, the moment is as exquisite as you'd dreamed it might be, although the flavor melts away far more quickly than the pain. XLB is a fixture on the menu of every restaurant that even pretends to serve Shanghai-style cooking in the San Gabriel Valley, but the version at Din Tai Fung, the first U.S. branch of the most famous dumpling parlor in Taipei, is on a level by itself. If you're into that sort of thing, note that the new Glendale location also offers XLB with truffles.
Last year, when the crafty do-it-yourself aesthetic seemed poised to overtake the Earth, Jessica Koslow's tiny Virgil Village cafe seemed like the most important restaurant in town for a few minutes, the embodiment of a subculture that held coffee, well-made jam and impeccably grilled toast as proxies for the small things that could be controlled in a world controlled by huge corporations. An individual couldn't do much to combat global warming, but she could make sure that the apricot preserves she consumed were made with ripe, sustainably grown fruit; that her rice was seasoned with organic yogurt and local sorrel, and that her fried eggs, sourced from pastured hens, were splashed with house-fermented hot sauce. A year later, doubled in size and splashed with paint, Sqirl is just a really good place to have lunch. And somehow, that's OK.
A lot of local restaurants serve Shanghainese food, which is understandable. Eastern China has one of the great culinary traditions of the world. But Shanghai No. 1 is a full-on Shanghainese restaurant, in the sense of being a bit of Shanghai transplanted directly to Los Angeles, a branch of a small Shanghai-based chain, down to the rhinestone-studded velvet banquettes, the lacquered walls, the massive chandeliers and the thick, glossy, full-color menu with nearly the weight of a September Town & Country. You could browse for hours, but the waiters know that you are going to get the braised Old Alley pork, the crab with garlic, the stone pot fried rice, maybe the steamed chicken with scallion oil and the shen jian bao, which are slightly doughy soup dumplings whose bottoms are pan-fried to a crisp. Lunchtime dim sum is much better than you might expect — the morning crew unexpectedly speaks Cantonese among themselves.
Where should I go before a play at the Pantages? Where should I go after the Hollywood Bowl? What's good for oysters near the Cinerama Dome? Some weeks it seems that every question that pops up in my email box can be answered with a referral to Suzanne Goin and David Lentz's seafood-intensive Hungry Cat, whose cocktails are as assured as the langoustines and sea urchin from the raw bar, whose first wild salmon and halibut of the season tends to show up before it makes it anywhere else, and whose takes on Maine-style lobster rolls and clam chowder are reliably delicious.
You would not be sad if your afternoon brought you to the uptown Bludso's Bar & Que, which serves a pretty close approximation of Kevin Bludso's Texas-style barbecue along with Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap. But you might as well drive down to the original in Compton, which shares a dining room with a storefront church and where the brisket, coarse hot links and beef ribs are fever-dream good, all smoke, animal and salt. Most of Bludso's barbecue is sold to go, but five will get you ten that your order never makes it out of the parking lot.
If you follow restaurants in Los Angeles, you have known about Govind Armstrong since he was a teenage prodigy on the line at the original Spago. In Venice, his Willie Jane is the most accomplished Southern dining room in town. But it is probably Post & Beam where you find Armstrong at his best, a happy place of shrimp 'n' grits, buttermilk-fried chicken and sweet potato pie that may be the most ambitious restaurant ever to open in the Crenshaw district. If you want to understand the power structure of South Los Angeles, you could do worse than to eavesdrop over smoked-salmon hash and a bloody mary at Post & Beam after church on a Sunday afternoon.
If your experience of Sichuan food is mostly from the Chongqing-style kitchens in the San Gabriel Valley, you will probably find Chengdu-style cooking lighter, cleaner and less likely to wake you up in the middle of the night with chile-oil induced nightmares. The food is flavored with a vast array of fresh, dried, pickled and ground chiles, but the vivid scent of Sichuan peppercorn comes to the front, and the sensation is of numbness rather than pain. Even a half-dozen visits aren't quite enough to exhaust the menu here — as soon as you check toothpick lamb, tea-smoked duck and garlic leeks sautéed with dense house-cured bacon off your list, you still have sliced fish with tofu pudding, flour-steamed pork and numb-taste wonton yet to try. It is almost impossible to visit without a taste of boiled fish with green pepper, a seriously addictive dish whose complex of chiles can make your lips buzz like a Las Vegas marquee. The wait for a table will be long.
The restaurant has closed. American kids used to want to be astronauts or baseball players when they grew up. These days, I suspect a fair number of them want to be chefs at the kind of tasting-menu restaurants that serve spring peas with juniper or gnocchi with wood pigeon. In his scant 18 months behind the stoves, Miles Thompson has transformed Allumette from a clubby beer-and-burger joint to a buzzy showplace for his vegetable-intensive modernist cuisine. And you have left the world of kale salad far behind — left it behind for the pleasures of poached monkfish liver served with peeled sea grapes, turnips with rhubarb gel, suckling goat with candied carrots and hops, or whatever else may show up on his constantly shifting tasting menus. (The menus are reasonably priced at $45 and $60, although that still makes Allumette the most expensive restaurant in the history of Echo Park.) I'm not sure even Thompson knows quite where his multi-layered conceptions are taking him, but it is going to be an interesting ride.
"Tar and roses" is the standard wine-geek description of the scent of Barolo wine. Tar & Roses, on the other hand, smells a lot like the smoldering oak that Andrew Kirschner passes most of his food through, onto or around in what is probably the purest distillation of the grill-centered small-plates fixation. Been a while since you've encountered popcorn with bacon, roasted marrowbones with sourdough or chicken oysters on a stick? You'll find them here, along with kale salad, cauliflower steak and a dish of wood-roasted peas with mint and sea salt that is among the most delicious things to come out of this decade. In 2025, Tar & Roses is the restaurant we're all going to be nostalgic for.
Downtown is thick with experimental restaurants, funky restaurants, cocktail-centered restaurants and representatives of national chains. What seem to be missing from the area are grand restaurants, which is where Drago Centro comes in. Because if there can be said to be anything lacking in the seat of Celestino Drago's restaurant empire, it is not a sense of occasion. It is thrilling to walk into the triple-height dining room with its industrialist's view of downtown, to settle on a bottle of Barbaresco and to have a meal of Ian Gresik's burrata with favas, spaghetti Trapanese and duck breast with beets presented to you as if they were great gifts. Game is especially wonderful in season, and there are small bites at the bar up front.
Sea Harbour is the best Hong Kong-style restaurant in the Los Angeles area, a comfortable dining room with impeccable live seafood and deft interpretations of Chinese luxury dishes. If you are looking for bird's nest, braised sea cucumber or sun-dried abalone preparations, I would recommend the restaurant without hesitation. You can blow thousands of dollars, but if you stay away from the allure of the live tanks, you can get away with spending very little. It also serves the best dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley, the har gow, shiu mai and sugar-crusted custard buns to which the other dim sum parlors aspire. Its rear dining room is lined with signed photographs from the Hong Kong singers and movie stars who frequent the place when they are in Los Angeles.
Gino Angelini is among the most skillful of the old-school Italian chefs in town, renowned for his delicate fish dishes and his vegetable-thickened sauces since the last days of Rex, and for his updates of the classic dishes of his native Rimini. But while Angelini Osteria does not feature Angelini's most refined cooking, it is everyone's favorite, an informal room with well-designed trattoria cooking and a place to settle into for a plate of bombolotti or oxtail on Wednesday, Grandma's green lasagna or peppery pollo alla diavola — and where whatever diet you happen to be on at the time will be accommodated without a fuss. Some nights, it feels as if everybody in the room knows one another.
When you get into the habit of visiting the Salt's Cure Facebook page, it is really hard to stop. Each afternoon brings a photograph of that evening's chalkboard menu, shot from an oddly low angle. Each photo of the chalkboard inspires daydreams of Tamworth pork chops or Hampshire pork chops, milk-braised pork shoulder or porter-braised pork shoulder, creamed soup made with celery, asparagus or leeks. You always kind of get the same thing there, sitting at the long counter — meat or fish seared into rude deliciousness, a big plate of vegetables, a bottle of rough red wine — but somehow it is always different, depending on what kind of produce flows through the kitchen. And even if you're not one of the people who show up here two or three times a week, by the end of a meal, you kind of wish you were. Salt's Cure is also notable for its weekend brunches of oatmeal pancakes, house-cured bacon, grapefruit pie and hot biscuits with jam.
In the last 10 years, Manhattan Beach has gone from a slouchy beach town to an overheated destination, where the boutiques no longer specialize in only costume jewelry and beachwear. And if any chef could be said to be propelling condo prices in the neighborhood, it is David LeFevre, whose Fishing With Dynamite is the superb raw bar this neighborhood has always needed and whose Manhattan Beach Post right next door is a redoubt of meaty, spicy, vegetable-intensive gastropub cooking. With its barbecued lamb belly, grilled local sword squid with lemon curd, bacon-cheddar biscuits and soft hunks of braised hog jowl in Vietnamese-inspired fish-sauce caramel, MB Post is exactly the restaurant you'd want to cater your tailgate party.
Sotto is a southern Italian place dedicated to local produce and sustainable, artisanally produced meat; a shrine to the awesome heat of its 15,000-pound oven insulated with imported Neapolitan dirt. Chefs Steve Samson and Zach Pollack come from Ortica, the South Coast Plaza restaurant that redefined Orange County pizza, and the pies emerging from the wood-burning Vesuvius are soft-centered, elastic and leopard-spotted with character-building circles of char. If you should happen across a special of lamb innards or fennel-crusted pork chops, make sure to order it the second you sit down. Even the pastas tend to be southern things we haven't seen locally, like fileja Calabrese with sausage and greens or the twisted noodles here called casarecce (which means nothing more than "homemade") with a thick paste of simmered lamb thickened with egg yolk and sheep cheese. For dessert — take the cannoli. We swear.
Brentwood must be the world capital of a certain kind of Italian restaurant, the kind with carpaccio, tricolor salads and three kinds of pasta with vegetables, chicken under a brick and tiramisu. Brentwood is also where you will find Vincenti, which could pass as the go-to businessmen's restaurant in a large Italian city, with Nicola Mastronardi's superb roasted meats, pastas made with house-cured guanciale and the grilled cuttlefish salad against which all others are measured. Vincenti was born from the late Mauro Vincenti's Rex, the restaurant that did more than any other to introduce Los Angeles to sophisticated Italian cuisine.
Sometimes I'm not sure what Los Angeles would do without Guelaguetza, which is practically the Oaxacan consulate in town; it's the prime mover in the mole thing and the birthplace of the local craze for mezcal. When you're in the mood for shared botana platters, you can get vast piles of white Oaxacan cheese served with lard-soaked memelas, the giant Oaxacan pizzas called tlayudas, heaps of fried empanadas or mole-soaked enmoladas, or even a platter with chicken, bowls of four kinds of mole sauce and the fresh tortillas to eat them with. If you're drinking, the micheladas are excellent — chile-spiked beers served in frozen, salt-rimmed mugs. After a few micheladas, you may have the courage to tackle a plate of the fried grasshoppers with chile and lime.
Sushi has never been easier to find in Los Angeles. Great sushi whose cost does not rival the price of an economy ticket to Narita is somewhat more difficult to locate. Of the fine sushi bars in Los Angeles, Kiriko is perhaps the least forbidding, a place where you know you can get perfect shirako or sea snail but which still treats mackerel with great respect; where the chef rejoices when bloody clams or baby octopus comes into season and where the great specialty is actually cherrywood-smoked salmon with mango, which you are unlikely to taste at Zo or Q. And while great sushi is never cheap, Ken Namba's traditional yet creative $80 omakase is almost a bargain.
If you follow local cooking events, you may know Ray Garcia as a hero to the nose-to-tail crowd, apt to remake Mexican tamarind candy with pig's blood or whip up offal-infused tamales that could make an abuelita weep with joy. Fig, his restaurant in the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica, is rather more sedate — a comfortable, airy farmers market-driven restaurant that never takes its diners too far from a comfort zone of baby kale salad, meatloaf, spinach-leaf lasagna, and red quinoa with chard and apples, although his bacon-wrapped bacon and veal tongue with tomatillo salsa have always had their fans. Will this be the year Garcia's transgressive side shows up at Fig? There are always the biscuits and gravy at breakfast.
The Roy Choi phenomenon is worldwide by this point: the bestselling gangsta-gangsta food memoir, the throngs that show up at book signings and the patronage of Anthony Bourdain and David Chang, among other things. Kogi is credited with hot-wiring the Twitterization of American cooking, the food-truck craze, and the shotgun marriage of Korean flavors and the L.A. street taco. So sometimes it is good to step back a bit and realize that the miracle of Kogi lies chiefly in the four trucks that cruise Southern California every night and that Korean short-rib tacos, Kogi dogs and blackjack quesadillas taste really good, even if you do have to wait 30 minutes in line for them.
The Hatfield's of the mind is probably a stubbornly idiosyncratic bistro in an off-center neighborhood, the kind of place you find pleasant and odd on your honeymoon, and are happy to discover 20 years later that it has remained exactly the same. Quinn and Karen Hatfield's elegant restaurant isn't small — it occupies the former premises of Citrus, one of the temples of California cuisine in the 1980s — and its neighborhood is not obscure. The clientele tends to be less romantic couples huddled over red wine-braised octopus and Champagne than entire sitcom writing rooms out for a working dinner. The cooking is still idiosyncratic and a bit more expensive than you think it is going to be. Both the date-crusted lamb and the yellowtail-enhanced croque madame are likely still to be on the menu in 2024. But it is possible to spot the contours of a modern tasting-menu restaurant here, as tempted as you may be to order the pork belly with lentils every time. The menu performs the great trick of being simultaneously unchanging and precisely seasonal. The Hatfields must do it with mirrors.
Is Barnyard a major destination restaurant? Because if your idea of an important meal involves sous-vide, a team of foragers and whole Berkshire hogs purchased from a small farm in Vermont, you're probably out of luck. Jesse Barber's gift is in his talent for deceptive simplicity — you are fooled into thinking that this is food you could prepare yourself if you had the time, that you are at Barnyard because it is pleasant and because you forgot to go to Whole Foods last night. This is an illusion. The menu at Barnyard, another one of those Westside places connected by umbilical cord to the Santa Monica farmers market, seems to change almost by the hour, but you can usually count on finding excellent terrines, grilled half-chicken brushed with reduced vin santo and crunchy, chewy risotto alla pilota.
Do we have to talk about the no-ketchup thing? Because we can if you want to. Sang Yoon started the no-substitutions thing at his gastropub Father's Office, and you cannot get ketchup on your burger there. Yoon likes to do things his way. He was also probably the first chef in town to apply rigorous French technique to the Asian flavors he grew up eating. The cooking at Lukshon resembles nothing you will encounter in Taipei, Myanmar or Malaysia — his dan dan mian, tea-leaf salad and crab fritters approach the originals in intent, but they're his. What matters is that they taste good.
You've probably run into Chris "CJ" Jacobson at your farmers market. He's the tall dude waving a jar of vinegar starter as if it were the keys to a new Tesla or hugging a crate of mulberries to his chest as if they might escape. A lot of chefs take produce seriously, but CJ seems to regard it, especially the foraged produce, they way a lot of us regard our pets. His Girasol in many ways is a typical Studio City restaurant, as popular for its strawberry ricotta crepes at brunch as it is for its fennel-crusted steelhead, but Jacobson's recent stay at Copenhagen's Noma shows. His talent may lie less in expressing L.A.'s cultural diversity than in layering the sunny fragrances of California onto what might seem to be straightforward New American cooking: the branch of yarrow with the meatballs, the cactus fruit in the mimosas and the charred pine needles dusting the steak.
A dozen years in, it seems almost a little odd to see Suzanne Tracht at her modern chophouse Jar, her ideas about Asian-inflected cooking limited to a first-rate chashu pork chop and a bit of lemon grass with the chicken; her mastery of the New American kitchen mostly directed toward big chunks of meat. She should be winning national awards, but she is content with making a great wedge salad and the best pot roast in town. But she's not slumming. Jar, which looks like a set from a Doris Day movie, is as timeless as a well-fitted A-line skirt. This is to say your grandparents would have liked it, although they may not have understood why the chicken was scented with kaffir lime leaf or why they had just been served sautéed pea tendrils instead of actual peas.
Michael Cimarusti, it must be conceded, knows how to cook a fish. And while any New Englander worth her salt pork has remarkably specific preferences about how lobster rolls, stuffies, steamed cherrystones and clam chowder should be prepared, at his cavernous homage to Rhode Island shore dinners, Cimarusti has his own. So of the clam chowders on his menu, the one you want is the Rhode Island style, a grayish, salty distillation of the sea. The crisp fried clams are served either with or without their tender, juicy bellies. For the miracle known as stuffies, chopped quahogs are mixed with bread crumbs, sausage and sweet peppers, then stuffed back into their shells and baked until crisp. And there may be no restaurant in Los Angeles that treats its oysters with more reverence. Just to mix things up, Connie and Ted's also serves one of the best burgers in town, lavishly greased with Hook's cheddar and cooked to a bloody medium rare.
Josef Centeno's kitchens may have been where the local convergence of haute cuisine and pub food began. His menu here reads almost like a graduate exam in culinary post-structuralism, mixing flavors and structures from Spain, France and western China, and Mexico and Peru. His ideal customer might be someone who knows what the Catalan almond sauce salbitxada is but who also doesn't get upset if she accidentally splashes a little on her shirt. A bäco itself is Centeno's invention, a kind of flatbread sandwich, halfway between a taco and a pita construction, stuffed with chicken salad, fried veal tongue or a complicated layering of that salbitxada, bits of pork belly and crunchy, porous cubes of what Centeno calls beef carnitas. Will you want a bowl of his noodle-enriched posole? You will, and some banana cream pie for dessert.
An Alain Ducasse disciple quitting his job at an haute cuisine pop-up to serve charred octopus tacos on a downtown street corner? It happens. So while you can approach Wes Avila's Guerrilla Tacos as you would any other truck, making a lunch of an overstuffed taco and a bottle of Mexican pop, the tacos you get at Guerrilla, which parks outside a downtown coffee bar a few days a week, are pretty much the ones he decides to sell you, which are as likely to be stuffed with diver scallops, Tuscan kale or even French black truffles as they are to be heaped with shrimp or carnitas — carnitas Avila makes by slow-roasting Cook Pig Ranch pork shoulder. His biggest fans know to get there early: The lamb shoulder or sea urchin you've been craving may be sold out within minutes.
Tsujita ramen is unbelievably good: gossamer noodles in a complex broth made with chicken, Kurobuta pork and a bit of dried fish. The burlier version called tsukemen, dip ramen, may be even better, served with a reduced broth as a dipping sauce on the side. Even the simmered egg, its yolk a vivid, reddish-yellow custard, is superb. But in the restaurant's wisdom, the ramen and tsukemen are served only at lunchtime — dinner sees a multi-course, if noodleless, izakaya menu. The Tsujita Annex across the street serves ramen and tsukemen at both lunch and dinner, but a somewhat different if equally pork-intensive ramen, which might be delicious if you weren't thinking so hard about the ramen that you should be eating instead.
Visitors to Los Angeles are always surprised by the great strip mall restaurants here, by the unexpected discovery of transcendence in a storefront between the dry cleaners and the 7-Eleven. Visitors to Orange County, I suppose, are just as shocked to discover fine dining in mega-malls, the spiritual home of Mrs. Fields and Hot Dog on a Stick. But at the top of its escalator, Marché Moderne is an oasis of calm, an unexpected place of guinea hen with calvados and scallops with cauliflower mousseline, moules frites and bone marrow with dense sauce bordelaise — classic French bistro cooking with just the occasional modern hint of a chorizo emulsion or a yuzu gelee. The $25 prix-fixe lunch is one of the better bargains in Southern California.
The morning after a meal at Hinoki and the Bird, your memories tend to be complicated: steel-edged elegance and the fumbling of all the OK Cupid dates going on around you; wisps of cauliflower shaved over a coconut soup and the slightly gritty texture of the charcoal-infused buns used to make the lobster roll; the ethereal scent of cedar smoke on the salmon and the sour aftertaste of cocktailian overindulgence. Chefs David Myers and Kuniko Yagi are obsessed with the complex seasonal rhythms of kaiseki cooking. On the other hand, as the owner of Comme Ça as well as a small chain of Tokyo cafes, Myers is also a master of high-volume upscale dining. So is Hinoki and the Bird, hidden under a Century City skyscraper, a boozy small-plates restaurant reliant on luxury ingredients or an atmospheric Japanese restaurant overlaid with American excess? Kind of both.
Pig guts are manly, as Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo discovered at Animal. Seafood can also be manly, as at their Son of a Gun, as long as you get rid of the twee beurre blanc and court bouillon, concentrating instead on plunking grouper into ham broth, serving shrimp sandwiches on white bread and making sure that the amberjack sashimi and lemonfish poke are at least as chile-smacked as a street taco. Fried chicken sandwiches and big plates of Kentucky ham don't hurt. They just got rid of the communal tables, so it is both a bit harder to buttonhole your neighbor on the subject of hockey and to land a seat on a Saturday night.
If Angelenos are splashing three bills on dinner, they're probably going for sushi. So it is almost by force of will that Josiah Citrin's very French Mélisse, which is still the most formal restaurant to open in Los Angeles since the 1980s, maintains its momentum — not to mention its truffles, caviar, Wagyu beef and specially imported Uruguayan rice. Actually, compared to an omakase at Q, the $125 prix fixe may even be a bargain. There is an opulent vegetarian tasting menu these days, but Citrin's customers still look like the parents of the people who go to Animal.
The most sensational new pasta dish of the year was probably the Factory Kitchen's mandilli — fragile handkerchief pasta crumpled over an almond-thickened pesto, which essentially melts the second it hits your tongue. Angelo Auriana's new restaurant is a compelling hybrid, an informal trattoria with rather formal northern Italian cooking. The dishes are composed and careful: sea robin roasted with olives and cherry tomatoes, pancotto with fried duck eggs, and complex casonzei pasta with browned butter and sage. Focaccina di Recco is a marvelous thing, a kind of crisp, translucent Genoese version of a Lebanese borek stuffed with herbs and milky Crescenza cheese.
It may be an optical illusion, but Night + Market is looking more like a rec room with every visit: bright colors, banners on the walls, china made out of cheap tin. It's as if Talesai, on the other side of the wall, is where the parents are having a sedate dinner, and Night + Market, whose chef Kris Yenbamroong is actually the son of the Talesai owners, is having a loud party for his friends. (Night + Market Song, the new spinoff in Silver Lake, looks even more like an apartment building's common room done up for a birthday party.) Yenbamroong is cooking strong, unmodulated northern Thai dishes here: fiery nam priks, grilled pig collar, steamed blood cakes, sour sausages and other pungent drinking food from the countryside around Chiang Mai.
To understand Roy Choi's new restaurant, you've probably got to swallow a lot of haterade. Because the bareness of the hotel-lobby restaurant, the pounding hip-hop and the menu of unreconstructed Korean stews speaks to an extremely specific Koreatown experience that many of Choi's contemporaries do not share. He charges a buck or two for kimchi instead of giving it away, which may be the local equivalent of spitting on the flag, and his newspaper-sized menu, decorated with an enormous photograph of an elderly Burmese woman smoking a cheroot, makes his customers order vast tureens of Boot Knocker instead of budae jjigae, Jamaal Wilkes instead of soondubu and Shorty instead of galbi jjim. The uni dynamite rice bowl, the closest thing to a must order, is slicked with spicy sauce. The soju cocktails are flavored with things like kimchi and curry. Somebody's having a good time — everybody's having a good time — but it is possible to find more fully realized versions of most of the dishes, even the crisp, LP-sized potato pancakes, elsewhere in Koreatown. But this is Choi's homage to the broad L.A. Korean American food universe in which he was raised, and it is vital and engaging in a way that even the best of the more sedate specialists in dak dori tang or eun daegu jorim can never be. Pot isn't a careful re-creation of a Seoul buljip. It is a raucous, sizzling, loving creature of Koreatown L.A.
A few years ago, most chefs associated with the movement popularly known as molecular gastronomy, after the book by the same name by French writer Hervé This, decided that they'd rather be known as modernists. All food, they insisted, was made of molecules, and the hydrocolloidal magic tricks they performed were more or less extensions of what chefs had been doing for centuries with egg whites and gelatins. But as with its counterpart in the art world, modernism turned out to be just another style. El Bulli's Ferran Adrià was a great chef, but his foams, gels, mists, snows and edible plastics were less the end-point of culinary history than a scenic stop along the way. And SAAM, the chef's tasting room within Bazaar, the restaurant by José Andrés, Adria's most successful disciple, is no less than a museum of modernist art. A (mandatory 22-course, $150) tasting menu may include a cocktail crowned with a flowing head of truffled mist, a duck-filled dumpling whose skin is fashioned from pale cotton candy, a madeleine fashioned from chilled parmesan ganache, aged-rice risotto enhanced with melted cheese, and a bit of uni with a mango pouch, just because. The dishes are exquisitely constructed: An encapsulation of liquid cheese that might be bouncy and over-thick in Bazaar's main dining room will be delicate at SAAM. You will encounter more edible gold than you have ever seen in your life, including a gold-plated, truffle-infused take on a Ferro Rocher candy. You will take a dozen Instagram photos. And as at a Buzzcocks reunion show or a Picasso retrospective, you will become nostalgic for an era you may have never known.
You could try to eat your way through the typed list of specials at the back of Jitlada's menu, a roster of ferociously spicy southern Thai dishes mostly unavailable outside Nakhon, but Suthiporn "Tui" Sungkamee will make it pretty difficult for you to succeed. The list of regional specials balloons by the week, beyond the acacia blossom omelets, stuffed fish balls and beef with cassia buds to exotic curried innards, eel with stinky sator beans, frog legs with turmeric and hundreds of other things, in such profusion that most of us tend to end up with the coco mango salad and the fried morning glory once again. If you're lucky, Sungkamee's sister Sarintip "Jazz" Singsanong may volunteer to make you one of her notorious Thai hamburgers.
Your feelings about République may well depend on whether you mind paying a $5 supplement for mind-blowing Normandy butter ("ordinary" butter is free), whether you would prefer pan drippings and whether you consider an evening of cheese, duck-liver mousse and Margarita Manzke's scorching-hot baguettes to be an evening well spent. République occupies the former Campanile space, chopped and channeled into an enormous bistro, and the chef is Walter Manzke, whose suave, modern French cooking you may remember from Bastide and Church & State. You find a lot of big-flavored bistro tropes here, including cured headcheese with lentils, Alsatian tarte flambé, a wide selection of oysters, steak frites, snails en croute and Santa Barbara spot prawns Provençale. Manzke is very good at this stuff. There's also a lot of the crunchy-groove cooking, the wood-roasted Brussels sprouts and curried cauliflower, that the cool kids are all cooking now. Will République grow to encompass Manzke's considerable skills with haute cuisine, or will it remain populist and delicious? At this point, it's hard to tell.
You can find something like Church & State in every arty warehouse district in America, a dim, loud bistro with industrial flooring and skeins of Edison bulbs, serving familiar French dishes to a crowd looking for its personal Montparnasse. The formula is so classic by now that everyone has forgotten whether the snails under little caps of pastry are supposed to be ironic or whether you're eating them because the herbed garlic butter tastes so good, or whether that glass of absinthe is louche or a little bit passé. What the rest of those restaurants don't have, though, is Tony Esnault in the kitchen, a chef long associated with Alain Ducasse whose sturdy terrines, burnished meats and carefully composed vegetable dishes are remarkable in their depth of flavor. You may never taste a better coq au vin, underpinned with a deep bass note of thyme.
The ideal of Japanese kaiseki, multi-course feasts designed to express the mood of a season, has quietly supplanted the more conventional French model in ambitious California restaurants. But n/naka may be the first dedicated kaiseki restaurant in Los Angeles, at least the first outside the Japanese expatriate community, and the sheer level of cooking in this modest bungalow eclipses what you find in most of the city's grand dining rooms. Niki Nakayama, a veteran of both Mori Sushi and kaiseki-oriented Japanese ryokan, grows the vegetables and herbs for her restaurant in her Arcadia backyard, inflects the hairy crab or madai with nasturtium petals and truffles as well as the expected flourishes of yuzu or grilled maitake mushrooms, and isn't beyond incorporating flavors from Italy or Hong Kong, although the soul of her cooking remains wholly Japanese. It is occasionally difficult to ascertain whether the most impressive bit of a dish is the chewy slab of Japanese halibut fin or the thimble-sized cucumber used as garnish, whose texture has been transformed into something almost luxurious through a hundred tiny slashes of her knife. The restaurant is expensive, serving only 13-course kaiseki meals at $165.
AOC has been an institution for so long that it seems almost odd to settle into the Moorish patio at its new grown-up location. Ordering the same old bacon-wrapped dates feels a bit awkward. But then you settle in with a bowl of wood-oven clams with green garlic and a glass of vinho verde, and it seems like old times. If you've been to Lucques or Tavern, you know Suzanne Goin's style: strong flavors, puddles of broth and extremely seasonal produce; slivers of lemon peel where other chefs tend to use zest; lots of olives, fennel, thyme, chiles and other hints of the Provencal palette even when the dish in question comes from elsewhere. Duck confit or "Ode to Zuni" roast chicken you expect; Balinese suckling pig you may not. But you could be happy here ordering nothing but vegetables: black rice and chewy farro with pine nuts; lightly curried cauliflower, or soft, almost soupy polenta with spears of charred asparagus.
Casey Lane is the dark prince of "No Substitutions nor Modifications" in Los Angeles, a chef who tacitly blurs the lines between restaurant and art project, or did for years anyway, and maintains a menu that seems to consist mostly of variations on pasta, salad, beans and toast. It is delicious toast, of course, thick, made with great bread, and wood-grilled, served with things like soft butter, old balsamic, bone marrow, house-made ricotta or goat cheese and figs. The basic impression is of Italian cooking translated into an odd American dialect, in which grilled anchovies are laid so beautifully on the plate that you rather suspect there's an art director, and plates of asparagus with grapefruit or garganelli with pickled chiles and the Italian bacon called tesa are remarkable for their purity of flavor. The fairly expensive wine list is impenetrable even to experts in Brunello and Chianti, but the staff is well-versed in its intricacies. The brunches, which include things like short-rib hash and bacon-stuffed waffles with fried chicken, are legend even in brunch-obsessed Venice.
We should all be a little more obsessed with John Sedlar than we seem to be at the moment, following his experiments with tamales, modernist tortillas and dim sum-style lonchera carts with the raptness we devote to gifted food-truck impresarios and tracking his flirtations with Spanish, Soviet and pre-Columbian kitchens. He didn't single-handedly invent new Southwestern cuisine, squirt-bottle saucing and high-end pan-Latino cooking in the 1980s, although he might as well have, and as chef of Rivera, the most ambitious Mexican restaurant in the city at the moment, he has coaxed the old flavors into the context of his sleek, modern cuisine. If a thing can be done with masa, wild mushrooms or chiles, he has done it, probably twice, and in ways that are occasionally difficult to comprehend. But his cooking is before all delicious, and Julian Cox's Mexican-influenced cocktails are mysterious, smoky and deep.
Bestia exemplifies the modern Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, deeply invested in curing its own meats, preparing just enough offal to satisfy the nose-to-tail crowd and not only making its pasta by hand but also serving it a little underdone so that the fusilli in lamb sauce almost hurts. Grass-fed beef heart tartare? Sea urchin crudo with lardo? Veal tartare with tonnato sauce? Ori Menashe is right there with you, even if you're just at Bestia for Genevieve Gergis' Carnaroli rice pudding with fruit. If you have heard of one bottle in five on the rustic-leaning list, you are probably studying for the master of wine exam. At this point, Bestia may be best known as the downtown restaurant you can't get into, so you should probably plan your next dinner there a month in advance.
Red Medicine isn't a Vietnamese restaurant anymore — not that it ever persuaded most people that it was one in the first place. The locavore neo-Nordic principles always lurking beneath the spring rolls and porridge have come to define Jordan Kahn's cuisine. You will scoop English peas, unsweetened lemon custard and trout roe from the bottom of goldfish bowls sealed with glaciers of frozen peapod juice, and you will learn to appreciate burnt lettuce leaves as a condiment. You will have waitresses treat you as a slow schoolchild when you don't immediately grasp that the coal-like lumps in a crab dish are pickled pioppini mushrooms rolled in coal ash. You will encounter as many kinds of yarrow in a dish of uni with almond milk as exist on heaven and on earth — they like to forage here — and you will encounter sequoia shoots both as an herb and as the piney flavoring of a dessert. There has always been something a little punk-rock about Red Medicine, where the talents in the kitchen are sometimes offset by spectacular PR missteps, but it has become hard to imagine the Los Angeles restaurant scene without it.
In the year since we last checked up on it, Alma was named as the best new restaurant of 2013 by Bon Appetit, Food and Wine chose Ari Taymor as a best new chef and the tiny restaurant, next to a taxi-dance joint on South Broadway, decided to serve only a $95 tasting menu. Taymor still uses his share of foraged chickweeds and oxalis blossoms, but nearly all of the produce comes from Courtney Guerra's Flower Avenue garden in Venice. You are just as likely to run into the tofu-seaweed beignets, broken beets with apples, and frozen duck liver with smoked maple and carrots, but it all seems a little more purposeful these days, from the tiny English muffins served with uni to the grapefruit with the Dungeness crab. Does Alma deserve the flood of praise? A qualified yes: Taymor occasionally seems too interested in aesthetic problem-solving, and his effects tend to be less than grounded in anything beyond themselves. Still, dinner here is never less than fascinating.
What ties Josef Centeno's cooking together? What might a plate of grilled greengage plums with fresh ricotta, rhubarb and tamarind have in common with a Japanese egg custard flavored with sunchokes, celtuce and smoky wild mushrooms? Why would a gifted chef spend hours composing a dish expressing the various textures of a yellowtail head? What is the point of sprinkling a savory panna cotta with pungent cypress seeds? Centeno is obsessed with detail; the tweezer-placed herbs, the drops of exotic oil, and the miniature, perfected scale. He uses local produce when relevant and global products when they're not. He has the knowledge and will to mix traditions without losing sight of the fact that they are traditions. The intimate omakase restaurant Orsa & Winston is the showcase Centeno's followers have been hoping for since he burst onto the scene a decade ago, and the menu, which changes daily, is as multicultural as the city it serves.
It is possible, I think, for a restaurant to be too good, to realize its given task so efficiently that it basically renders itself obsolete. Much of what we look for when we go out to good restaurants, after all, is the pursuit of perfection — the idea that the next sip of Burgundy, the next spoonful of crème brûlée, will finally be the one that approaches its Platonic form. And while Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse Cut is admirable in so many ways — its science-fiction-severe Richard Meier design, the bone-marrow flan and the crisp little knishes that sometimes show up as an amuse bouche — the Wagyu rib-eye imported from Japan is so rich, so perfectly beefy, that it is unnecessary to eat more than a bite or two. This is not a bad thing. It leaves room for chef Ari Rosenson's truffled lobster, sliced tongue with salsa verde and lightly curried short ribs.
Do you remember the first time you tasted a bacon dessert? Did you notice the moment that every restaurant in town seemed to be serving beef tendon puffed into airy snack crackers, and did you ever wonder why? A visit to Animal can occasionally feel like a forced march through an anatomy handbook, but Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have a gift for making curried brains, fried pig's ear, crunchy sweetbreads and oxtail poutine seem as routine as steak and roast chicken, and by the time you work your way to the smoked turkey legs and balsamic-glazed country ribs, you may be wondering why you didn't order the crispy pig's head or veal tongue instead. Animal is the kind of restaurant that other chefs dream about, a kitchen that renders its darkest, and happiest, thoughts in smoking, dripping flesh.
Ludovic Lefebvre is either the chef who saved French cooking in Los Angeles or is the hell-born agent of its destruction. Personally, I think he may be both. He is a protégé of Pierre Gagnaire, Marc Meneau and Alain Passard who is perhaps best known for his fried-chicken truck and his snarling Gallic presence on reality cooking shows. He introduced the city to full-bore modernist cuisine and then kicked his liquid nitrogen canister to the side of the road. He is a master of the nuanced tasting menu who found his voice cooking at pop-ups in a sandwich shop. Seats at his tiny restaurant, hidden in a former chain pizzeria that still bears its sign, can be as hard to come by as courtside seats at a Lakers game, and trying to land one can make a potential diner yearn for a culinary Stub Hub. As good as his truffled grilled cheese with buttermilk and honey or his potato pulp with bonito flakes and Salers cheese may be, repeat visitors may wish that he would occasionally change things up. But it is the possibility of surprise that brings you back and back again, of experiencing what a supremely gifted chef can do with rare Iberico pork, beef with smoked peanut butter or sushi rice with brandade. He has made the grilled cabbage leaf practically a sacrament, and not just because he dusts it with crushed almond candy. For all of its maddening drawbacks, Trois Mec is the closest thing in the United States to the ecstatic improvisational cooking at Parisian bistronomy shrines such as Frenchie and Le Chateaubriand.
If you cherish good reasons to hate a new restaurant, you will probably find everything you're looking for at Ink. The walls of the dining room look as if somebody rubbed them down with shoe polish, and the music is unbearably loud. If you're down on celebrity chefs, you'll be happy to learn that Michael Voltaggio is probably the Joe DiMaggio of "Top Chef," a guy not beyond inflecting his steak tartare with horseradish and liquid nitrogen, transforming naked egg yolks into gnocchi or serving his Brussels sprouts with pig's ears and thin sheets of lardo. That couple at the next table, the ones eating potato charcoal with vinegar and braised beef cheeks with parsnip bark, look altogether too pleased with themselves. But then you try the melty-soft cuttlefish with toasted hazelnuts or the lamb belly with yogurt curds, and you know. Voltaggio is as obsessed with that potato polenta with bone marrow in front of you as you have ever been with anything in your life.
If you are even remotely interested in the restaurant world, you probably know the odd trajectory of Jeremy Fox, the former Manresa chef who transformed Ubuntu, a yoga studio annex in Napa, Calif., into the most important vegetarian restaurant in the United States. And here he is at the wine bar Rustic Canyon, serving crisp little pig's foot patties with yuzu-scented aioli, half-melted Raclette cheese with an oniony chicken broth and tiny Jaime Farms radishes, leaves and all, with a bit of lardo beaten until it resembles whipped cream. Fox is one of the farmers market guys, but you wouldn't confuse Rustic Canyon with a health food restaurant, especially after a bottle or two of biodynamic Syrah. You will want the Castelvetrano olives jolted with fennel and orange zest. Fox's odd composition of beets, smashed berries and ripe avocado may be the first bowl of purple quinoa you will ever eat with pleasure. Even the kale salad is delicious, thoroughly massaged into submission and tossed with dates and Parmesan. If Fox can make raw kale taste good, imagine what he can do with green pozole spiked with mussels and clams.
When people chat about restaurant cooking, the conversation usually flirts with ingredients, influences and technique. But when it comes to the food at Lucques, the seat of Suzanne Goin's small but swelling restaurant empire, discussion tends to come around to first principles: the small but telling details that make each ingredient taste most fully of itself; the essential qualities of the French-leaning pan-Mediterranean food. I could probably go on for half an hour about a recent citrus salad: the half-dozen varieties each at the peak of its season; the way each fruit was sliced to accentuate its particular sweet-tartness or bitterness and presented at slightly different temperatures; the bland smoothness of the fresh labneh cheese and the sharp fragrance of the mint; the subtle, rubbery crunch of the chopped pistachios. The short ribs, the ricotta dumplings with English peas and the rabbit with noodles are detailed too. If you have cooked out of Goin's "Sunday Suppers at Lucques" (or have eaten family supper at Lucques on a Sunday), you know that behind her simplicity lies not just the expected California farmers market fixation but also patience and extraordinary rigor.
There has never been a better time to eat sushi in Los Angeles, whether your tastes run toward the hot-rice school led by Nozawa, the Peruvian-Japanese hybrid pioneered by Matsuhisa, or Hiroyuki Naruke's purist edomae sushi at Q. But the most satisfying sushi meals of all may issue from the chili-bowl-shaped sushi bar of Shunji Nakao, who dances you across the Pacific, fish by fish, as suavely as Gene Kelly skipping down the street. You may be served an impossibly luxurious concoction of julienned raw squid, squid ink, sea urchin and black truffles; freshly made sesame tofu with a crumpled sheet of yuba; or a tangle of slivered sardines. The sushi is different every day, but the omakase will invariably include a species or two new to you: needlefish woven into a thick, fragrant braid, or even exquisite kohada, marinated just long enough to soften its fishy edge. You will find a small but beautifully composed list of the junmai daiginjo sakes that go so well with Shunji's food.
The consensus hit of L.A.'s meat world this year is probably Chad Colby's tomahawk chop at Chi Spacca, a monumental cross-section of pork rib, hefty as a squash racquet, rubbed with fennel pollen and grilled slowly until it glows with flavor. And Colby's coppa and lardo are the most carefully cured in town. Pizzeria Mozza is among the best pizzerias in the United States, famous for its organic ingredients and a risen, unconventionally fermented crust good enough to eat even without the squash blossoms and burrata. The Pugliese-style focaccia sold Mondays at Mozza2Go is formidable. Osteria Mozza goes from strength to strength, from the northern Italian pastas to Matt Molina's pungent roast guinea fowl, from the deep all-Italian wine list to the encyclopedic mozzarella bar commanded by co-owner Nancy Silverton. Any of the components of the sprawling Mozzaplex would be among the better restaurants in town; together, they command L.A.'s universe of urban rustic cuisine. (The usual disclosure applies here: Silverton, who runs the complex under the distant supervision of Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali, is a family friend.)
You have to give it to Wolfgang Puck — he is really good at this reinvention thing. So if you haven't been to Spago in a while, it may seem odd to walk into the Minimalist-chic dining room with Ed Ruscha prints on the walls, wine racks reaching halfway to space and a tasting menu that has become newly locavore — all California, anyway — with a rigor that even the hip downtown places aren't quite showing at the moment. And while you may be eating Santa Barbara sea urchin with freshly made tofu, bincho-grilled squab with charred maitake mushrooms and Sonoma lamb smoked over the foraged herb called rabbit tobacco, the table next to you may be enjoying Wiener schnitzel, a giant côte de boeuf with cheesy pommes aligot, or agnolotti with peas. Spago, the most famous restaurant in the observable universe, might have coasted forever on its 1980s fame, but Puck and his chef Tetsu Yahagi reinvented it for the second time, as a proto-modernist restaurant on the international model. But you are still at Spago. Life is good.
Once again, the best restaurant in Los Angeles is Providence, that refuge of fine dining just north of Hancock Park. Michael Cimarusti's training is in haute French cuisine, but a broad streak of Japanese kaiseki runs through his cooking. He uses only wild-caught fish (his menus are 90% seafood) and refuses to serve species, such as swordfish or bluefin tuna, considered threatened by environmental watch groups. He promotes local farmers but does not hesitate to use exotic seaweeds or imported calamansi limes when they suit a dish. He is conversant with all the latest modernist techniques, but aside from the occasional encapsulated daiquiri or sous-vide cephalopod, its use is rarely apparent. When he devises a better way to make a clam chowder or fold Santa Barbara uni into soft-scrambled eggs, he won't stop serving it for frivolous reasons, but the menu is highly seasonal, and every time you visit you are likely to encounter dishes you haven't yet seen: a botanical fantasy of nasturtium leaves folded over minced Japanese tai and garnished with its sesame-stuffed blossoms, a shot of smoked halibut broth concealing tiny spring peas, or perhaps a barely seared Santa Barbara spot prawn moistened with a sauce made from the juices from its own head and Brittany salt butter. Cimarusti may be a supremely creative chef, but his restaurant has many of the classic virtues: crisp white tablecloths, a lovely but understated dining room, a deep but surprisingly reasonable wine list and a staff intimately acquainted with his cuisine.