Your next great meal in Southern California is as likely to come from that tiny storefront next to the 7-Eleven as it is from a Beverly Hills gastronomic palace. Welcome to the best of the L.A.-area restaurant scene, 2015. To save your favorites and explore a map, get the app.
This is the third year we have compiled this 101 list at The Times, and this is the third year Providence has earned its spot at No. 1. Because, while chef Michael Cimarusti is associated with none of the movements that define Los Angeles restaurants at the moment, ran neither a lunch truck nor a pop-up, grew his own vegetables nor foraged for wild herbs, Providence in its quiet way embodies everything a restaurant should aspire to be. Cimarusti operates within the context of modernist seafood, which means his raw materials come from all over the world, but his sense of seasonality, his easy multicultural flavor palette and his unfussy use of California produce plant his cooking solidly in L.A. He is devoted to sustainable fish — you will never see shark or bluefin here.
Over the course of a long dinner here, you might see a tuna dumpling, its wrapper fashioned from a transparently thin slice of radish, whose flavors lean Thai; an exquisite ceviche of sliver of sword squid with radish; and a slip of marinated mackerel on brioche that tastes exactly like seaside pepperoni pizza. His famous dishes include soft scrambled eggs frosted with uni, which is a dish everybody needs to try at least once, and something he ironically calls the Ugly Bunch: a composition of uni and sliced geoduck clam layered on a bed of panna cotta made with smoked crème fraîche, then sprinkled with edible flowers so that it resembles some lovely mash-up of tidepool and forest floor. And even after its remodel, which incorporated the patio into the main body of the restaurant and splashed the walls with what look like colorful Rorschach tests, the dining room is lovely but understated, the tablecloths crisp and white, and the staff intimately acquainted with the nuances of the cuisine.
At Taco María, your meal may begin with an exquisite pig's foot croquette topped with a single papalo leaf and end with a warm blue-corn atole flavored with strawberries roasted overnight in the dying embers of yesterday's cooking fire. There may be a mild ceviche of spot prawns and geoduck with peeled cherry tomatoes, a luscious melon salad with slivers of jicama, or Baja halibut, cooked just long enough to allow the slippery flakes to slide past one another like the pages in a book, with fresh coriander and seedy tomatillos cooked down to jam. When you taste the crisp smoked sturgeon taco, you may wonder why anybody would bother tucking the fish into a bialy.
If you were going to design the perfect Southern California chef in a lab, you probably couldn't come up with anything better than Taco María's Carlos Salgado. His parents own a well-loved Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana, he aspired to a career designing video games, he cooked with some of the best chefs in the Bay Area and he is as obsessed with old-breed corn and the art of nixtamalization as Kobe Bryant is with his jump shot. Taco María began as a truck — Salgado calls his cooking, which combines Mexican flavors and modernist technique with a solid farmers market fetish, Chicano cuisine. In its way, Taco María, whose $65 prix-fixe evening tasting menus only occasionally include tacos, may be the most important Mexican restaurant in California.
If you are of a certain age, you probably remember Spago as the restaurant that broke the rules. Wolfgang Puck introduced the concepts of Asian fusion cooking, upscale pizza, main-course salads, grill-centered fine dining and the celebrity chef to the American discourse. But that was 33 years ago. Everyone is a celebrity chef now. And at a time when you can occasionally find Michelin-level cooking in a taco truck, Spago, born a funky-chic Sunset Strip trattoria, has been a fancy place in Beverly Hills since 1997.
But Mr. Puck is not a sentimental man, at least when it comes to his restaurants, and this year's version of Spago is as new: a Minimalist-chic dining room, with Ed Ruscha prints on the walls, a menu that seems to lean in equal parts modern French, post-Ottolenghi Middle Eastern and luxury Japanese. Tetsu Yahagi's exquisite chirashi-sushi box is always worth a look. Somebody may hand you a macaron stuffed with salted yolk and maple-cured pork belly, which is probably what the Gulfstream G650 crowd eats instead of Egg McMuffins. And while you may be cruising through a tasting menu that includes Santa Barbara spot prawns done as a spicy aguachile, Dungeness crab in a smoky chicken dashi, and a charming terrine of lentils and beef tongue, the guy at the next table is having the off-menu Wiener schnitzel made with chicken that the kitchen makes for him every time he comes to the restaurant, which is a lot. You are still at Spago. The list of Rieslings will make your jaw drop. Life is good.
Ludovic Lefebvre is the best French chef in Los Angeles, I think. I'm pretty sure Lefebvre thinks he is too. In a city not without its disciples of Ducasse, Guy Savoy and Jacques Maximin, Lefebvre is a protégée of Pierre Gagnaire, Marc Meneau and Alain Passard, who are kind of the three horsemen of French cooking in this century, and his customary unit of production is the nuanced multi-course tasting menu. He may not have invented the idea of the pop-up restaurant, but he was probably the first high-profile chef to have made it a way of life.
Seats in the minuscule Trois Mec are as hard to come by as courtside seats at a Lakers game; while half of food-obsessed Los Angeles hovers over its keyboards on alternate Fridays trying to land a table the second the chance comes online at 10 a.m., it occasionally seems as if most of the dining room is filled with computer-savvy guests from Tokyo. And for at least a year, his $85, five-course dinners (you don't choose; everybody gets the same thing, although vegetarians are accommodated) revolved around what was admittedly a very good plate of coarsely mashed potatoes. What's Ludo cooking? It's hard to know, although recently he has been playing with the combination of sweet corn and Sichuan peppercorns; crisp, tiny tartlets filled with herbs and pistachios; miso crème brûlée with salmon roe, and eel with white chocolate-infused mashed potatoes. There are occasional infatuations with grilled cabbage leaves, lamb belly, sunchokes, vinegared buckwheat "popcorn," smoked peanut butter and rare Iberico pork, although you never quite know. 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.
Jeremy Fox isn't that into the idea of a celebrity chef, I don't think, either at Rustic Canyon or at Ubuntu, a yoga studio annex in Napa, which he transformed into the most important vegetarian restaurant in the country. He doesn't make the rounds at his restaurant, he doesn't really hang out on the chefs' circuit, and in the couple of videos I've seen, both of which were made by the magazine Lucky Peach, he looks as if he wishes he were anywhere else in the world; you've never seen an onion diced with quite that level of contemplation. This is to say, you're probably not going to see his green pozole with clams on the Food Network any time soon, there probably won't be a splashy spread on it in Martha Stewart Living, and it won't be taking the red-eye to New York to be enjoyed by Hoda on the "Today" show.
You will have to go to Rustic Canyon itself to experience that green pozole with clams in all of its electric, funky glory. It won't be much of a hardship. Rustic Canyon is a wonderful place. Fox is doing the urban-rustic thing here, meaning that you're going to see the produce you were browsing this morning at the Santa Monica farmers market presented in the nicest possible way: fried Weiser Family Farms peewee potatoes with chicken gravy, See Canyon apples layered with Hook's cheddar and pancetta, and his famous Beets and Berries, which involves crisp pistachios, charred berries, roasted beets, quinoa and a chunk or two of Reed avocado from JJ's Lone Daughter Ranch, a dish raved about equally by Paleos, vegans, gluten-free guys and garden-variety hedonists.
Back when Ruth Reichl was still the restaurant critic at the L.A. Times and Nancy Silverton had recently made the transition from Spago to Campanile, a friend once looked up the incidence of the phrase "Nancy Silverton's fabulous desserts." We wrote about Silverton all the time in the Food section, and her fruit-forward rustic pastries were probably the most influential in the country at that time, but, even so, the number of mentions was pretty amazing. Once you've tasted Silverton's food, it is pretty hard to stop talking about it.
These days, of course, Silverton is tsar of the Mozza empire, a small neighborhood of Italian eating places at the corner of Melrose and Highland avenues. There is Pizzeria Mozza, whose crisp, risen wood-fired pizzas are of a type you will find nowhere in Italy, which bothers some Italian purists but pretty much nobody else. Mozza2Go is a takeout counter with a small specialty in Puglia-style focaccia, among other things. Chi Spacca is an Italian meat restaurant, whose mammoth fiorentina steaks, grilled tomahawk pork chops massaged with fennel pollen and house-cured salumi are probably the best in town. Silverton herself presides over the mozzarella bar tucked into Osteria Mozza, the fanciest restaurant in the group, notable for its roasted meats, amaro-scented cocktails and handmade Emilia-Romagna-style pasta. Any of the components would be among the better restaurants in town; together, they command L.A.'s universe of rustic Italian cuisine, and the kitchen is strong enough to thrive even after the departure of James Beard Award winner Matt Molina and Chi Spacca's master butcher, Chad Colby. (The usual disclosure applies here: Silverton, who runs the complex under the distant supervision of Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali, is a longtime family friend.)
If you are the kind of person who dreams about jellyfish and grunt (and why wouldn't you be the kind of person who dreams about jellyfish and grunt?), Shunji may be your ideal restaurant, an omakase restaurant where the sushi is never less than perfect but sometimes seems almost beside the point, a place where satori may come as readily from a composed vegetable plate or sesame tofu with crumpled sheets of freshly made yuba as from kanimiso or a sliver of Japanese sea bream.
It is the distillation of the creative raw fish stylings pioneered here by Nobu Matsuhisa, behind whose counters Shunji Nakao was one of the original artisans many years ago, but freed of the slick precision and the stale tourist tropes. Nakao dances you across the Pacific, fish by fish, as suavely as Gene Kelly skipping down the street, but is confident enough to present tomato tofu as a signature dish alongside his abalone liver and intricately braided needlefish. After an evening at Shunji, which occupies a bowl-shaped restaurant built in the Great Depression as part of the Chili Bowl chain, you take away noting less than the shifting, clean taste of the season.
It is possible, just possible, that Los Angeles takes Lucques a little too much for granted. Suzanne Goin cooks in a laid-back, urban-rustic Mediterranean style that is easy to mistake for simplistic, and with the immense popularity of her cookbooks, a lot of people are under the impression that they cook like her at home. Regulars tend to drop by for the relaxed Sunday Suppers as well as for the regular series of dinners with visiting cookbook writers; whatever the opposite of a special-occasion restaurant might be, Lucques is probably that, even when it's nice out on the patio.
Some people treat it as a delivery system for the braised short ribs with horseradish. Plus, in an era when the popular conception of a chef is as a tortured artist maniacally bent on perfection, Goin barely breaks a sweat. But even something like an avocado-beet tartare does not exactly make itself — the soft lusciousness of roasted beets and the creaminess of avocado have to be adjusted to rhyme just so; the cucumber has to be cut just right and the pumpkin seeds have to be toasted to exactly the proper crunch or the composition becomes less something you would find as an appetizer in a great restaurant than a mushy deli-case disaster. Behind Lucques' simplicity lies not just the expected California farmers market fixation but also patience and extraordinary rigor.
If you have forgotten to reserve an outside table at Lukshon, when you walk over from the parking lot, you walk past the loud party and maddening grilled-meat smells of Father's Office, through the lovely garden party on Lukshon's patio and into a dark-wood box cushioned with chillwave music and populated with three ZIP Codes worth of bad Tinder dates. You are momentarily tortured by the idea of a burger and a glass of Allagash White next door. But while Lukshon, where Sang Yoon of Father's Office focuses his perfectionism on Asian street food instead of cheeseburgers, has always been a decent enough place for dinner, it became sort of unbelievably accomplished when nobody was paying attention.
And the level of detail is pretty astonishing: a plate of Hawaiian butterfish sashimi, pushed toward Thailand with a dusting of blast-frozen coconut milk "snow'' and the caviar-like cells from finger limes that pop between your teeth like caviar; or a Burmese fermented tea leaf salad tossed with toasted split peas and nuts shaped to resemble toasted split peas, so you never quite know what is crunching beneath your teeth; or a lobster roll laced with a Sichuan-style pig's-ear terrine but pushed in the direction of a Vietnamese bánh mì in its flavor profile. You could probably write a book on the manipulations Yoon performs on peanuts, chiles and prickly ash to come up with his dan dan noodles. And if you are wondering whether you like it better than the dan dan mian at Lucky Noodle King or Chengdu Taste, you are asking the wrong question.
I think that when you hear someone described as a chef's chef, what pops into your head is a kitchen figure with a slightly messianic vision and impeccable technique, someone like Grant Achatz or Thomas Keller. This could not be further from the truth. A chef's chef is someone who cooks food that chefs like to eat. And what chefs like to eat is slightly horrifying: pork belly on everything and bloody slabs of meat; plenty of shellfish and various organs, brought to the table in a profusion of plates that laughs at the idea of courses. Chefs, who spend their days up to their elbows in unmentionables, tend to appreciate a certain level of grossness as a virtue.
And nobody understands a chef's appetites like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal, who sling out quivering veal brains with vadouvan, lakes of cheese melted with chorizo, fried rabbit with cream gravy, poutine with oxtail gravy, and biscuits with foie gras and maple sausage gravy as if their only stated goal in life is to make Gwyneth Paltrow regret every one of her life's choices. Whenever you are puzzled as to where a particular Los Angeles restaurant fad came from, be it pig's ears, loco moco, grilled street corn, poke, bacon desserts, cheese grits or "Changes and modifications politely declined," chances are pretty good that it rolled through here pretty early on.
It has never been easier to eat high-end sushi in Los Angeles, to surrender two hours and half a month's rent to an orchestrated corner of the sea. But before Q, there was nothing like real 19th-century-style edomae sushi here: a universe of pickling and curing and aging closer to a great charcuterie counter than to a raw-fish floor show, but so subtle as to be almost invisible to most regulars at Nobu or Koi. Hiroyuki Naruke's deceptively plain style accentuates the flavor of the fish, whether it is fluke marinated with a bit of kombu, lightly vinegared mackerel or grunt, whose meatiness has been accentuated with a barely perceptible difference in temperature. Naruke shut his tiny, well-regarded Roppongi Sushi restaurant when partners at a local law firm offered to set him up with this elegant downtown restaurant, and Los Angeles is the better for it. Q is not cheap — set omakase meals, the only option, start at $75 for lunch and $165 for dinner — but its prices are comparable to the other top-end sushi restaurants in town.
Leaping flames, natural wines, a thicket of curing meats — that is Bestia. Decibel levels edge into the 90s; it is the noisiest restaurant in Los Angeles. It is also one of the most popular. Is a week from Tuesday at 5 good for you? But out of the chaos, the roar and the sea of White Negronis comes Ori Menashe's focused, masculine Italian cooking that has been so influential here in the last few years: rustic, slightly underdone pasta tossed with braised lamb and sharp goat cheese, or sea urchin and bottarga; slow-roasted lamb necks; or pizzas with fennel pollen and Menashe's version of the chile-red Calabrian sausage 'nduja. (The local 'nduja craze started here.) Also, it occasionally seems as if there are fig leaves in everything, including the ice cream. Genevieve Gergis' desserts are becoming more and more assured. Wars have been fought over lesser treasures than her butterscotch-coconut tart.
If you are inclined to show visitors the brave new food world of Los Angeles, you should probably swing them by Guerrilla Tacos. Because even when they claim to come from an area with decent Mexican food, they have never tasted tacos like these — not just carnitas made from sustainable Cook Pigs Ranch pork, lamb shank braised with root vegetables or charred torpedo onions with fresh shell beans, but also the occasional quesadilla with black truffles or tostada with the same Santa Barbara uni you find in the best sushi bars. It can sometimes be hard to register that you're sitting on the curb eating tacos from a truck. Wes Avila, whose résumé includes stints with Walter Manzke, Gary Menes and Alain Ducasse, works his flattop as a master of haute cuisine, warming heirloom tomatoes just until their skins pop, grilling sustainable fish and sluicing the tacos with complex salsa. The Guerrilla Tacos truck changes its location more often than some of its regulars might prefer, but it tends to park next to some of the better coffeehouses and wine shops in town.
Is n/naka the only kaiseki restaurant in Los Angeles? It is probably the most serious one at any rate, an unlikely bit of calm in a traffic-choked stretch of the Westside, dedicated to elaborate, oddly formal dinners exquisitely calibrated to the flow and moods of the season. Kaiseki is an ultimate small-plates experience, as tightly structured as sonata form; more or less the template for progressive modernist cuisine. You might expect chef Niki Nakayama, a veteran of both Mori Sushi and kaiseki-oriented traditional Japanese inns, to be a master of Japanese seafood preparations, and she is, from sakizuki through shokuji. Depending on the season, there may be a delicate custard with snow crab and sea urchin, cool sea trout in warm white miso, and a lovely sashimi arrangement — maybe all of them. But the soul of Nakayama's cooking may lie less in the Pacific deeps than in her own Arcadia backyard, source of the stunning herbs and vegetables that inflect her cuisine, as well as of her vegetarian kaiseki meals. And she is not afraid to adapt flavors or techniques from other cuisines into the kaiseki format — perhaps spaghetti with pickled cod roe and abalone instead of the expected soba, or a snip of fennel frond on an oyster. 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. N/naka is expensive, serving only kaiseki meals at $160 (vegetarian) and $185.
Modernist cuisine, which used to be called "molecular cuisine" until somebody pointed out that all food was made of molecules, is widely believed to have vanished in California; its emphasis on technique and its supposed exaltation of artistic considerations over culinary ones were supposedly banished to Umami Burger and patches of northern Spain. But although Michael Voltaggio might balk at being labeled a modernist chef, and he is still probably more famous from food television than for his potato charcoal with vinegar or his beef tartare with horseradish snow, the murkily lighted Ink flies the modernist flag; deliciousness with a soupçon of strange — soy-cured melon, potato polenta, gooey egg-yolk gnocchi and all. Order the octopus with shaved fennel and a jet-black ocean of ink, and it is as if you have battled the kraken yourself.
Last year, it was supposed, we had reached Peak Steakhouse, the point at which the market was so saturated that the supply of 42-ounce porterhouses and fennel-rubbed fiorentinas could only dwindle toward depletion. Since then, of course, new fleets of even more supercharged steakhouses have been opening everywhere in Southern California, and even the most casual observers have developed opinions on the difference between chianina and certified Angus filets. But even given the new surfeit of places in which to blow a week's salary on beef and California Merlot, the best among them remains Cut, the Richard Meier-designed dining room that would not have looked out of place in Kubrick's movie "2001." An A-5 Miyazaki Wagyu rib-eye may not seem as unusual these days, even when brought to the table for your inspection wrapped as if it were a rare samurai sword, and other restaurants are beginning to catch up with the short ribs slow-roasted with garam masala or even the mammoth lobsters in their truffled sabayon. But the bone marrow flan, the potato tarte Tatin and the warm matsutake mushrooms spritzed with sudachi lime, orchestrated by Wolfgang Puck through Lee Hefter and Ari Rosenson, are already beginning to seem like modern classics. And that Miyazaki rib-eye, or even a couple of bites of it, is sublime.
A Vietnamese charcuterie plate? Sure, why not? Delicate terrines, whipped lardo with slivered herbs, smoked duck, air-dried lamb, candied pork belly, ruddy salami flavored with Vietnamese spices — it could make up the filling of the best bánh mì you've ever tasted. Pot-au-feu shares roots with pho, and when the clear beef broth is scented with burnt onion, cinnamon and star anise, the resemblance is obvious. A crock of snails may take on even more resonance when the garlic butter is zapped with lemongrass and it is served with naan-like flatbread fresh from a wood-burning oven. What former Spice Table chef Bryant Ng has done here is to reimagine the populist California bistro as Vietnamese the way that Campanile reimagined it as Italian a generation ago, and the results are thrilling: plum salad with wild arugula, egg custard with uni, a mayonnaisey jellyfish salad you could imagine encountering on the Left Bank and what is undoubtedly the best Singapore-style white pepper Dungeness crab in town. Better than any other local restaurant at the moment, Cassia encapsulates the erasure of boundaries between expense-account dining and street food.
Gentrification occasionally has its upsides. And in Silver Lake, among them is Alimento, a small, crowded trattoria from Zach Pollack, who made his reputation at Sotto. His menu is modest, but clever — you're tempted to come back often just to see what he may be up to next — lightly pickled mackerel plunked onto spicy beans, the Tyrolean beet dumplings called canederli, or fusilli pasta tossed with a dense, intensely flavored sauce made with clams, fava leaves and smoked butter. Pollack's version of the beloved Bolognese tortellini in brodo is slightly perverse — he fills the tortellini with hot broth like a Shanghai soup dumpling, and sauces it with its typical stuffing of diced mortadella and parmesan — but the effect is delightful, witty without being pretentious. Pollack's best dish may be his crostone: smooth, creamy chicken liver pâté spread out into a broad, shallow half-moon on a heavy Heath plate, flanked by hunks of grilled bread and a pungent, mustardy splash of plum jam.
If you are a restaurant-goer of a certain age in Los Angeles, you have feelings about République, whether you've been there or not. The restaurant, which resembles a soaring medieval banquet hall, occupies what used to be Campanile. The chef is Walter Manzke, whose polished, modern cooking you may remember from Bastide and Church & State. République is a super-bistro, populist but not cheap, concentrating on the sole meuniere, tarte flambee, fried pig's head French stuff, but leavened with a bit of the crunchy-groove Mediterranean cooking that all the cool kids are into now. Manzke's signature is the elevation of familiar dishes through mastery of detail, like the Santa Barbara spot prawns kept alive until seconds before they hit the charcoal grill, or the blast of fennel in the slivers of pickled onion tossed in with the steak tartare. Margarita Manzke's urban rustic desserts are terrific, from the cast-iron-baked pies of peaches and apricots to the handful of Harry's Berries strawberries served simply with mascarpone and a bit of sorbet. And the French fries are the best in town.
Everyone was stunned when Kris Yenbamroong, auteur of this restaurant as well as of the original (and also splendid) Night + Market in West Hollywood, took luu suk, pig blood soup with MSG, off the menu earlier this year. Luu suk was never the best dish at Night + Market Song, but along with the waterbug sauce served with the fried chicken and the bitter jolt of beef bile in the hand-chopped larb, it seemed almost like a statement of purpose. You were probably going to be eating catfish larb, crispy rice salad or Burmese pumpkin curry; crab fried rice, Bangkok mall pasta with weenie flowers or the sweet grilled pork neck that Yenbamroong calls pork "toro," but the warm, red puddle was a sign that you were in the right place, in the care of a chef unwilling to compromise his vision of northern Thai party food for the sake of propriety. It is probably a testament to that vision that the restaurant seems almost as popular among Silver Lake vegans, happy to eat the coconut scented khao soi noodles with oyster mushrooms or the tofu larb, as with the nose-to-tail crowd in search of pigtails and spleen.
Koreatown is thick with what are sometimes called home-style restaurants: small places, typically family owned, that specialize in things like mackerel stews or spicy octopus instead of the endless parade of pub grub, all-you-can-eat barbecue and noodle shops associated with the area. Some of the best of them, like Jun Won or Seongbukdong, inspire waits nearly as long as what you might find at a popular bulgogi joint on a Saturday night. But of all the home-style places, the most compelling is probably Soban, whose ganjang gejang, whole raw crab marinated in what tastes like a soy-tinged distillation of the animal's juices, may be the single best taste in Koreatown: briny and sweet, firm but not cooked, brimming with gooey clumps of roe. Soban is not all about the crab, of course. Its banchan, the cold side dishes that accompany any respectable Korean meal, are pretty spectacular, a dozen or so little plates of zucchini, fish cakes, salted fern stems, fried tofu, greens with sesame and water kimchi, among other things. The spicy galbi jjim, short ribs stewed down to almost a cloudlike softness in a glossy, stickily complex chile sauce, are remarkable. Aficionados sometimes argue whether Soban's eundaegu jorim, spicy cod stew, is the best or only one of the best in Koreatown — an argument best conducted over a bowl of the dish in question.
The restaurant smells good, like herbs and campfires, meat and liquor. Slabs of meat hiss over cherry-red coals. Odys + Penelope, the modern churrascaria from Quinn and Karen Hatfield, longtime proprietors of the now-closed restaurant Hatfield's, is a modern-primitive grill, a fragrant place that speaks in the language of smoldering wood. The most emblematic dish here is probably the sirloin cap, a cut revered as picanha in Brazil, but the gigantic applewood-smoked short rib is a close cousin to the beef ribs in the best Central Texas barbecue pits, crusted with black, salty bark. For every slab of protein, you will probably end up with two of the vegetables — the best dish here, oddly enough, may be the risotto-like bowl of cauliflower and millet painted with a sharp almond-basil purée. Karen Hatfield has been one of the most interesting pastry chefs in Los Angeles for years, but she really comes into her own here. The Hubble telescope studies mysteries less profound than the crisp yet friable perfection of the rye crust on her chocolate pie.
Could AOC have been first with the modern small-plates thing, at least on the West Coast? Might Angelenos have had a small head start on the rest of the country when it came to things like chermoula, romesco and chickpeas; or in figuring out how to fit a cheese course into the context of a regular dinner instead of sticking it at the end of the meal? Suzanne Goin's Mediterranean izakaya has occupied its expanded, neo-Moorish location for only a couple of years, but it seems as if it has been there forever. If you've been to Lucques or Tavern, you know Goin's style: strong flavors, puddles of broth and extremely seasonal produce; slivers of lemon peel; lots of olives, fennel, thyme, chiles and other hints of the Provencal palate, even when the dish in question is something like grilled fish with coconut rice. Can you make an entire meal of vegetables? Of course.
At the beginning of the year, it seemed for a moment as if Orsa & Winston had transformed itself into a high-toned yakitori bar, a place like foodie destination Bird Land in Tokyo, where you could stop by for a few skewers of really good grilled meat, a baroque salad or two and endless rounds of beer. It turned out, of course, that chef-owner Josef Centeno had just gone on vacation, that the yakitori concept had just been a way to keep the restaurant full in a traditionally slow time of the year. But those weeks also served to remind regulars of how much they may have liked the tasting-menu intensity of Orsa & Winston, the super-high quality of the produce and the feeling that Centeno was taking them through his own kind of omakase, with the same kind of fish and such you find in good sushi bars but assembled with an intelligence that recognizes the cuisine of Catalonia, France and Latin America as well as that of Japan. The skewers were great — so are the beautifully arranged (and relatively inexpensive) grain bowls Centeno composes for weekday lunch — but they don't quite compare with the arrangements of headcheese, smoked abalone, rice porridge with lobster, celtuce, and profoundly aged duck the kitchen puts together night after night.
You probably aren't getting into Maude; you should know this up front. Because the restaurant is smaller than a freight elevator, the food is really very nice and its chef, Curtis Stone, is the one food television star that everybody genuinely likes. Plus, the restaurant's conceit, that each month features a different star ingredient, ensures a lot of repeat business. A lot of people, eager to see what Stone might do with figs or black truffles, consider monthly meals at Maude to be the culinary equivalent of season tickets to the Lakers or the ballet. What you will find when you do land one of those 25 seats is a restaurant that is fussy in ways you may not have expected, with tea roses, mismatched silver and plates that might have been spirited straight from your grandmother's hutch. Everyone is served the same tasting menu, whose price seems to hover around $120 — less for parsnips, way more for white truffles. If you have signed up for winter squash, it will be winter squash all the way: 10 prettily arranged courses ranging from candy bar-sized slabs of jellied squash purée wrapped in pumpkin-cured lardo, to duck pastrami with squash foam, to pumpkin consommé finished at table in a coffee siphon. When avocado rolled around, there was avocado ice cream, avocado soup, avocado with ham, avocado with caviar, and English cheddar with avocado mustard. A little obsessive-compulsive? Perhaps. But always something new.
Did we imply last year that Sqirl had become just a restaurant? Because, given a little time to contemplate, it is clear that this is not quite the case. Jessica Koslow's little cafe was indeed at the center of the craft food thing, and you can find her Blenheim apricot jam in both Austin and Brooklyn if you know where to look. It was probably the first local place to raise avocado toast to the level of a sacrament, and it nurtured both the natural wine destination Lou and the coffee gods at G&B in their earliest days. You can probably thank (or blame) Sqirl for the cults of house-fermented hot sauce, burnt baguettes, ricotta toast, sorrel rice bowls, actually palatable vegan brown rice porridge and the emergence of the newly groovy Virgil Village shopping district. Take a victory lap, Sqirl. You've earned it.
If you drop by Egg Slut late on a Sunday morning, you will find a long, sleepy line of breakfasters running through Grand Central Market, curling around the diner counter, edging past the Mexican seafood concession and eventually running into the crowd waiting for a crack at the lox and pastrami emerging from the smokers at Wexler's Deli. The macadamia-milk lattes at G&B are good enough to make coffee people babble in tongues. Belcampo serves what is arguably the best hamburger in town, sourced from the meat they raise themselves in the shadow of Mt. Shasta (which you can buy in the adjacent butcher shop). The fish stew assembled in the steam kettles at Mark Peel's Bombo reminds you why his Campanile was considered one of Americas great restaurants for so many years, and the chef is usually there to assemble it for you himself. Lydia Clarke of DTLA Cheese is the cheesemonger equivalent of a primo indie record store clerk. Madcapra serves its stunning if unconventional falafel with its own hand-fermented zhug. The warm, crusty baguettes from the Clark Street cart are superb. In the last couple of years, Grand Central Market has transformed itself from a tired, half-empty collection of food stalls into an essential food center that should be on the agenda of every visitor to L.A. Owner Adele Yellin has managed to renovate the old market, a downtown fixture since 1917, without losing the splendid carnitas from Las Morelianas, the dried chiles at Valeria's or the gorditas from Roast to Go. There has been controversy. But people on both sides of the gentrification debate seem to agree on the necessity of an Egg Slut egg and cheese.
Has there ever been a restaurant longer in the planning stage than Spring? Possibly not. But as wonderful as it may well be, there are those of us secretly delighted that Tony Esnault will remain that much longer behind the stoves at Church & State, which almost stealthily has maintained its place as the Los Angeles bistro of record. You can find places like Church & State in every arty warehouse district in America — dim, loud bistros with industrial flooring and skeins of Edison bulbs — but Esnault, a longtime disciple of Alain Ducasse, prepares his duck with radish and figs, baked marrow bones, Alsatian onion tartes, garlicky snails under little caps of pastry, even apricot-sweetened vegetable tagines with quinoa, as if he was striving for Michelin stars. The sturdy terrines and burnished meats, as well as the trout meuniere and the fancy mac and cheese, are remarkable in their depth of flavor. In winter, you will not find a better coq au vin.
You occasionally run into food snobs — I met one just the other day — who claim that the San Gabriel Valley is really nothing special, that the only decent Chinese food here is to be found in rich people's homes. These people turn out to have come here from Hong Kong, of course, and their idea of fine dining includes lots of top-quality bird's nest and sun-dried abalone, but no matter. For the rest of us, there are the hourlong waits for a table at Chengdu Taste, a Sichuan restaurant good enough to have altered migration patterns from western China, and life without its mind-bendingly spicy mapo tofu, griddle-cooked bullfrog or toothpick-skewered lamb sizzling with chile and cumin is almost unimaginable. If you order both numb-taste wonton and boiled fish with green pepper sauce, the waiter may object, because he believes that the sauce on the floppy, delicate dumplings will obliterate your ability to taste the subtleties in the Sichuan-peppercorn-zapped fish. Get them both anyway, and the tea-smoked duck, the beef with tofu pudding and the garlic leeks sautéed with dense house-cured bacon. It will feel as if you have been punched in the mouth, but it will have been worth it. 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.
At a culinary event last summer, a chef beginning his demonstration suddenly flushed deep red and gulped for air as if he were drowning. Was he having a stroke? No, the chef explained, mopping perspiration from his forehead. He had eaten a bowl of Jitlada's turmeric fried rice just before walking onstage. Suthiporn "Tui" Sungkamee's southern Thai cooking can do that to a person, even to someone well-versed in the treachery of rocotos and habaneros. However, the interesting thing about Jitlada isn't the heat but the way that the sharp pungency of the southern Thai chiles pulls the spices, the fresh herbs and the animal funk of the dishes into a lovely, harmonious whole. It will only hurt for a minute. If you do not feel up to confronting the stinky beans, fish kidneys and acacia-blossom omelets of the once-secret southern list, which now extends to several typewritten pages in the back of the bound menu, you will find much to love among friendlier things like coco-mango salad, fried morning glory and turmeric-fried fish. Jitlada is that rarity: a popular restaurant as well loved for its most challenging dishes as for its versions of Thai clichés.
When I first visited the Tasting Kitchen a half-dozen years ago, I was pretty sure that it was something between a pop-up and a performance-art piece; that Casey Lane and his crew were going to disappear one long weekend and scoot back up to Portland, Ore. Menus were numbered in a way that reminded me of a prisoner counting the days until release. The menu, written in untranslated Italian, seemed based mostly around pasta and toast. It occupied its space like a hermit crab inhabiting a shell. But that number of menus is well into the two-thousands by now, and the idea of toast-intensive cooking no longer seems odd. Lane's light, sharply flavored Italian cooking, based around seasonal vegetables, strong cheese, braised meats and the taste of char, still feels modern, if always a bit more expensive than you think a simple meal of pasta and roast chicken is going to be. Cocktails and the wine program are still strong; it stays open usefully late. And it is still the best restaurant in Venice.
Well, of course you're going to get the mandilli with almond pesto when you come to the Factory Kitchen. Why wouldn't you? The crumpled sheets of handkerchief pasta dissolve in your mouth like rice paper. And you're probably going to get the thin, crisp focaccia di Recco stuffed with salty crescenza cheese, and the bubbly beet gratin, and the pickled cherry peppers called peperu stuffed with cheese, and the porchetta, which sings its song in the key of fennel pollen. It is no wonder that chef Angelo Auriana, veteran of so many years behind the stove at Valentino, where you never saw the same dish twice, should desire a restaurant where the menu is firmly his own. Of the Italian restaurants downtown, the Factory Kitchen, in a converted arts district industrial complex, is the comfortable one, the place you'd go to catch up with old friends.
José Andrés is the chef who brought Spanish-style modernist cuisine to the United States; the kind of mists, airs, gels, snows and encapsulations made famous by his friend Ferran Adria at elBulli. Like his Minibar in Washington and his é in Las Vegas, SAAM is a restaurant within a restaurant — kind of the couture inner sanctum of Bazaar — serving luxurious 22-course tasting menus, including uni pouches, odd cocktails and cotton-candy dumplings, that both expand on and improve on the pleasures of the larger dining room outside. You will encounter more edible gold than you have ever seen in your life.
La Casita Mexicana is neither the fanciest Mexican restaurant in town nor the most regionally specific, although you will find a lot of recipes here from the countryside of Michoacan and Jalisco. Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu's own Mexicano, a new restaurant in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, is sleeker (Del Campo and Arvizu are celebrity chefs in Spanish-language media, mobbed when they go into Eastside supermarkets). But their modest Bell cenaduría has evolved into the showcase of central Mexican cooking it has always deserved to be, a place that you know will have menus of delicious meatless Lenten dishes in season, where you can find vegetables like romeritos and camotes in their brief season, perhaps harvested from local community gardens, and where the morning chilaquiles, perhaps made with one of the kitchen's three moles, are first rate. La Casita Mexicana is known for its version of chiles en nogada, the meat-stuffed peppers with pomegranate and sweet cream that is often thought of as Mexico's national dish.
If you ever followed the world of L.A.'s semi-secret pop-up restaurants, you probably know about Gary Menes, a French Laundry alum who followed a short turn as chef at the Studio City restaurant Marche with extended runs, usually at eight- or 10-seat counters inside vast deserted rooms, in Glendale and downtown. This Le Comptoir, a 10-seat counter next to Cassell's in the Hotel Normandie, is his first permanent restaurant in quite a while. But for fans of Menes' austere California French cooking, Le Comptoir's $69 tasting menu is exactly what they've come to love — a half-dozen courses mostly based around vegetables from a Long Beach organic garden, artfully composed, extensively explained, served with appropriate wines. Many of the dishes can be supplemented with things like foie gras or an ultra-rich Japanese Wagyu rib-eye cap, but Menes' gift is his ability to draw out the flavors of vegetables through precise low-temperature cooking. Do not neglect to order coffee. You will not find a chef half so obsessive about its sourcing and preparation.
Neal Fraser, at least in the years since he closed Grace, is probably best known for his meat cookery. So not a few of us were befuddled when one of the best things to come off the wood fires at Redbird, his grand, gorgeous business-lunch-friendly new restaurant in the deconsecrated St. Vibiana's, was … smoked tofu, as soft as freshly made Korean soondobu but as redolent of the pit as Texas brisket. It was almost as good as the Veal Fraser, a massive chop served with veal cheeks, snails and demiglace. Fraser had some new moves in him after all. He likes smoke, chiles and farmers market vegetables; lingering tartness and mild funkiness; odd cross-cultural flavors like sumac, lemongrass and yuzu kosho; little crunchy things and lots of salt. If he dragged you to a Japanese izakaya, you would probably let him order. Redbird is a place of roasted shishito peppers dusted with shaved dried fish eggs; sea urchin garnished with chewy half-dried shrimp and a mystifying wasabi snow; thick slabs of headcheese with figs on crisp slivers of toast; and fennel-scented "rabbitchetta" with polenta and pea tendrils, as well as a truly good bowl of pork belly pozole. Jazmine Corpuz, the pastry chef, has a love for savory flavors and unusual presentations. Months after it dropped off the menu, I am still fixated on her black walnut cake with ale-poached pears and a glop of ice cream made with the stinky California goat cheese Humboldt Fog.
Do I have theories about Pot? Oh, boy, do I have theories about Pot. Because like almost everything Roy Choi touches, this stripped-down Korean restaurant in Koreatown's Line Hotel means both what it obviously means and its exact opposite: truly Korean cooking presented as groovy cultural mash-ups to people, both Korean and non-Korean, who could never figure out which was which. The new menu is half the size, most of the hot pots have been stripped out and the poster-sized photo of a spliff-smoking old woman has been reduced to passport size; now it's a little more mainstream. Plus, you almost have an idea of what is actually going to show up at the table: bowls of spicy, mayonnaisey rice paved with sea urchin, grilled spot prawns with soy and chiles, smoked duck breast, pork belly steamed with kimchi and tofu — and, of course, the Boot Knocker, which is like the Spam-intensive Korean stew budae jjigae reimagined as an Adult Swim cartoon. Will you finish with the Giant Fruity Pebbles Snow Ice, which is what happens when you cross the Korean dessert bingsu with a Farrell's Ice Cream Zoo? You probably should.
Arguments about the best hamburger in Los Angeles might be tend to be long and complicated, and if you want to emerge victorious, graphs and charts may not be out of the question. Arguments about the best Korean barbecue in town tend to be much shorter. Because while there may be perfectly valid reasons to prefer the price of O Dae San, the service at Chosun or the funk of Soot Bull Jeep, there is no questioning the supremacy of Jenee Kim's top-end Park's, where the beyond-prime bulgogi, beef tongue and rare-breed pork belly are of the highest possible standard, the freshness of the banchan is on point and even things like stone-pot octopus or a simple kimchi jjigae have depths of flavor you may not expect. Park's still pretty much has the top end of K-Town barbecue to itself.
For a city with a progressive dining scene, Los Angeles still has an awful lot of the kind of steakhouses where our parents may have courted one another in the 1950s, manly places like the Dal Rae and the Derby — known for tumblers of Scotch, lushly upholstered booths and inch-thick slabs of meat. You could probably call Jar a homage to these places. Yes, Suzanne Tracht and her chef de cuisine, Preech Narkthong, are unusually adept at both Mediterranean cooking and what used to be called Asian fusion cuisine. But it would be more accurate to say that Jar actually is one of those steakhouses, from the thick Kansas City strips to the upholstered chairs to the Scotch Mists a friend's aunt always gets at the bar, but with a clean, chefly twist. Jar, which looks like a set from a Doris Day movie, is as timeless as a well-fitted A-line skirt. And if for some reason the superlative pot roast, fried Ipswich clams and big char siu pork chops aren't your thing, there is always the prospect of duck-fried rice, pea tendrils stir-fried with garlic and the city's best banana cream pie.
If you have a long memory, you may remember Bäco as kind of the Bigfoot of local cuisine, more talked about than actually seen in its native habitat — an elusive flatbread, halfway between pita and a rôti, that Josef Centeno would occasionally whip out as a special wherever he was cooking but sell out of before you actually got there. Now he has a small restaurant empire of his own around the intersection of 4th and Main streets, and at Bäco Mercat, you can get a Bäco pretty much any time you want one. I like the one with fried veal tongue. You might prefer the original, with the Catalan pepper-almond sauce salbitxada, bits of pork belly and crunchy, porous cubes of what Centeno calls beef carnitas. Get a bowl of the pozole enriched with ramen noodles too, and maybe some of the tempura-inspired fried vegetables.
When you are in a certain frame of mind, it can still seem as if luxury French cooking is the future; as if world happiness may yet depend on the ready availability of caviar and white asparagus, veal with chanterelles and chicken roasted in hay, sweet soufflés and everything praliné. And even in a Los Angeles where fine dining has come to mean lots of raw fish and backyard-grown vegetables, Mélisse is the real deal, a serene Santa Monica dining room where you always know when truffles are in season, the thick wine list is especially good on white Burgundies and the chef, Josiah Citrin, reacted to the specter of a foie gras ban with a series of dinners in which the duck livers were served in every course, including dessert. (If you're going to eat foie gras, this is probably where to do it; if not, there is also a vegetarian tasting menu.) Mélisse has never been cheap, but compared with omakase sushi dinners, the $135 prix fixe menu almost seems like a bargain.
You could probably spend half your life in Glendale without running across this obscurely located Iranian-Armenian restaurant. But Edward Khechemyan's cooking is extraordinary, especially the cold appetizers: luxurious swirls of thickened yogurt labneh; a fluffy, parsley-intensive version of tabbouleh; fried eggplant smeared with thickened whey and onions cooked until they collapse. The stuffed grape leaves are tender as pastry, slightly soured with green grape juice instead of vinegar, and rolled around herbed rice as intensely flavored as if it were ground lamb. Even Khechemyan's fattoush is extraordinary, made with purslane and feta, with the cracker-crisp wisps of bread surrounding the plate instead of crumbled into it. Adana is a great place to bring a vegetarian. But you should also try the slow-grilled meats — I'm not sure I've ever praised a chicken kebab before I had this one, and I'm not sure I'll ever praise one again.
Does eating a Kogi taco still feel like a revolutionary act? Well, kind of, actually. Because if you're eating Kogi, it probably means that you or a friend found the truck's location on Twitter, you've spent some time in a line as long as anything in Los Angeles this side of the bleachers at Dodger Stadium, and you have contemplated whether your appetite would be best served by a taco stuffed with Korean grilled short ribs or Korean spicy beef — tacos that were as unimaginable as the idea of traveling to visit a food truck when Kogi started a few years ago. You may meet a new friend. Some people think of Kogi as basically like Tinder, but with kimchi quesadillas.
When the subject of nem nuong arises, as it does from time to time with people who have experienced the central Vietnamese charcoal-grilled pork wrapped with herbs into rice paper rolls, the conversation sooner or later turns to Brodard, the enormous, teeming nem-nuong-plex behind the Mall of Fortune in Garden Grove. Brodard is possibly the most popular restaurant in Orange County's Little Saigon. And when the subject of Brodard comes up, it isn't long before somebody starts talking about Brodard Chateau, which is exactly like Brodard except that it occupies a Victorian mansion, the prices are about a third higher and you can reserve on OpenTable instead of waiting in a two-hour line. Brodard Chateau is nem nuong-centric to the point that, even if you have ordered a clam salad, a plate of banh khot and a bowl of the delicious bun cha Hanoi, the waiter will stand patiently by the table until you tell him what kind of nem nuong you'll be having.
Manhattan Beach is kind of what the rest of the world thinks Los Angeles is like, a happy place of straight white teeth and ocean-view condos; where surf rats still live in the converted garages of $2-million townhouses and a beach volleyball tournament is likely to break out at any time. And the Manhattan Beach restaurant of the moment — maybe the only Manhattan Beach restaurant outsiders go to on purpose — is Manhattan Beach Post, David LeFevre's sprawling, vegetable-intensive brasserie a few steps up from the pier and just down from his excellent oyster bar, Fishing With Dynamite. (Is there an ocean view? Only if you sort of crane your head and peer down an alley.) It's exactly the kind of groovy, casual place you'd want to drop by for a plate of shrimp with lentils, blistered green beans or grilled corn with Grist & Toll polenta after a day at the beach. But if you haven't remembered to reserve, you'll be waiting a while for a seat at one of the long communal tables. It's OK — the cheddar-scallion biscuits are worth it.
Leimert Park is booming. Crenshaw-Exposition is set to become one of the city's most important light-rail hubs. The Crenshaw district is seeing its greatest commercial development since the early 1960s. And Post & Beam is at the center of it all, a sleekly modern restaurant in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza where the neighborhood gathers for Govind Armstrong's splendid buttermilk fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and cast-iron-seared Brussels sprouts; for excellent Sazeracs; and for a crack at the sweet potato pie. 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 after church on a Sunday afternoon.
There are grander sushi restaurants on the Westside, and there are certainly ones that are more expensive. If you were looking strictly for a bargain in sushi qua sushi, you might be better off at Hide up the street. But Ken Namba has a sure command of his style, not afraid to employ New World techniques, such as ceviche or "carpaccio," when it suits him, to toss in the occasional bit of jalapeño, okra or ripe mango, or to include a foie gras chawan mushi on his omakase menus. (You should probably just let Namba do what he does.) But he is basically something of a classicist, with deep ties to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market. And while Namba may be best known for his preparations of salmon, which are indeed spectacular, Kiriko is also the place to go when you want to experience the gooey, funky, highly seasonal produce of the sea.
Parisian friends don't even have to tell me they've been to Petit Trois; I can tell from the look in their eyes. A lot of travelers end up having their first Los Angeles meal at Petit Trois, probably because they think it will serve a version of the cuisine at the impossible-to-book sister restaurant, Trois Mec, instead of carefully prepared French weekday cooking. And they go away stunned, not quite believing that they've spent an evening eating the carrot salad, steak-frites and omelets with Boursin cheese they could have gotten 14 steps from their apartments back home. But Los Angeles is not Paris, and it is nice to have somebody make us a properly runny omelet, a cheesy bowl of onion soup or a chicken leg showered with buttery brioche crumbs. We don't generally get those things here, or at least not done so well. The soft, rich Big Mec burger, awash in red wine demi-glace instead of ketchup, is delicious. And the escargots, from Ludovic Lefebvre's grandmother's recipe, really may be the best in town.
Is it time to stop dwelling on Gino Angelini's past as a master of formal Italian cooking? Not quite yet. The memories of dinners he prepared at Rex, Vincenti and La Terza are still pretty strong. But then you slip into the simpler osteria, a shrine to Italian home cooking. And you settle down with a bowl of tripe and cuttlefish, his grandmother's gooey green lasagna or a plate of grilled quail with saba, and you decide that whatever makes Angelini happy will probably make you happy too.
Why are so many of Orange County's best restaurants in swank shopping malls? I can't really tell you, any more than I can tell you why the sleek bistro Marché Moderne seems to have the most authentic bouillabaisse in Southern California at the height of the season, or why some of us think of its entrance in the South Coast Plaza as an escalator to heaven when we're in the mood for pressed sweetbreads with licorice and Banyuls, seared foie gras with Harry's Berries strawberries, or scallops with the Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout. It would be hard to find a more accomplished bistro in town.
There is that pizza oven, all 15,000 pounds of it, insulated with imported Vesuvian soil, and there are those special dinners, of whole pigs, Jewish-Italian food, you name it. Co-founder Zach Pollack spun off the wildly successful Alimento; chef Steve Samson is about to open a Bologna-style restaurant not much smaller than Dodger Stadium. The collection of amari, bitter Italian liqueurs, is revered by the local cocktailian crowd. Sotto, in its basement just south of Beverly Hills, is in the conversation. But sometimes people forget just how good its Southern Italian cooking continues to be, not just the spicy clams with chickpeas and 'nduja, the crisped octopus tentacles in garlic broth or the chunky casarecce pasta with braised lamb and pecorino but also the fennel-intensive pork chops, the occasional innard special and what is still the best eggplant caponata the city has ever seen. There are always a couple of Northern Italian specials, if that's the banner you wish to fly. And that massive oven has really burned itself in — the Neapolitan pizza is stunning these days.
Were we talking about the East Coast taste in Los Angeles restaurants? Because, man, does Gjelina push every button for people here from out of town, especially in February. Because while New Yorkers are girding themselves for another month of wintry mix, we're sitting around the fire pit out back, picking at dandelion salads or big plates of grilled vegetables, contemplating whether we should get the pizza with squash blossoms or the one with wild mushrooms, and trying hard not to notice the clump of television stars over there in the corner booth. 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.
Chris "CJ" Jacobson has been living the chef's high life in the last couple of years, flitting between food shows, doing a high-profile season at Chicago's chefs' showcase Intro and landing a dish on the cover of Food & Wine. His Girasol, whose interior can give the impression of being swallowed whole by a sunflower when you show up for brunch, is one of the better restaurants in the San Fernando Valley, a New American bistro with farmers market vegetables and sustainably raised meats. The menu may include a bit less emphasis on foraged foods than it did a couple of years ago — the drought has been bad for mountain greens — but you will still find the occasional wild ingredient rubbed into a steak or flavoring a vinaigrette. And you can't beat the octopus salad.
Have you heard about the taco with lardo and clams? In some circles, it seems as if all anybody talks about is the taco with lardo and clams, which is the improbable specialty of B.S. Taqueria, a cocktail-oriented restaurant implanted into the carapace of the former Mo-Chica downtown. Ray Garcia, an Eastside native who cooked a sedate menu for several years at the hotel restaurant Fig, became a kind of celebrity for his wild Mexican cooking at food events, and at B.S. Taqueria he finally lets his freak flag fly: paper sacks stuffed with wild rice and garbanzos or fried chicken skin with lemon; drippy tortas stuffed with chicken-fried beets; fried-bologna tacos; and charred cauliflower al pastor. The menu of plus-sized daily specials, meant to be shared by many, leans toward home cooking — Friday's pork shank in green chile sauce is especially good. Julian Cox's cocktails are spot on, and the house beverage is a lukewarm can of Tecate beer preseasoned with salt, chile and lime. Other L.A. restaurants explore the regional diversity of Mexican cooking; B.S. Taqueria celebrates the glories of pocho cuisine instead.
Is an expat New Englander caught without her clam bellies like a Californian stranded in a distant, tacoless void? Because the letters I used to get from readers, back in the day when lobster rolls weren't as common as cheeseburgers in certain parts of town, were truly heartbreaking. But Connie and Ted's, a fantasyland of a Rhode Island clam bake in what a Googie coffee shop might look like if it were built by Donald Trump, has fried clams, good ones, served either with or without their tender, juicy bellies. It also has steamed clams, clam rolls, fried clam cakes, three different kinds of clam chowder and the miracle known as stuffies, chopped quahogs mixed with bread crumbs, sausage and minced, sautéed sweet peppers, then stuffed back into their shells and baked until they become crusty and hot. Clams? They're on it. And as the restaurant is owned by Michael Cimarusti of Providence, who knows both how to cook fish and how to buy it, you will also find, among other things, perfect oysters, grilled scallops, steamed lobsters and probably the only New England boiled dinner you should consider eating in this part of the world.
Are we living in the golden age of the California taco? We may be — or at least it can seem that way from the vantage of an oversized booth at Colonia after an icy michelada or two and a table crowded with tiny plastic plates. Colonia is another restaurant from Ricardo Diaz, who started the tacos-as-tapas thing at Guisados before peeling off to open Bizarra Capital, Tacoteca and this place. You have probably spent a few minutes trying to decipher the list of tacos scrawled on a chalkboard. And you are facing down the remains of horchata-battered shrimp tacos, deep-fried potato tacos, duck confit tacos, cheese and chayote tacos, scallop tacos and maybe something called a nachostada, a Diaz invention that oddly enough tastes exactly the way it sounds. The best tacos in the house may be the ones made with florets of battered, fried cauliflower, lightened with the merest touch of cream.
Barbecue, it is generally allowed, is essential to the general state of human happiness. And although we are living in an era when new pits tend to be opened by chefs with Michelin stars on their résumés rather than by your uncle's weird Army friend Stan, the happiness still tends to be greatest at the traditional places, with long lines on Saturday afternoons, a smell of woodsmoke that saturates the neighborhood for blocks around and that loaf of off-brand white bread they throw in when you pick up a rack of ribs. Kevin Bludso is the muscle behind a fancy new barbecue restaurant up on North La Brea Avenue that also serves craft beers and the kind of cocktails fancied by mustachioed dandies. But you might as well tool down to Compton when the urge for barbecue strikes, because when the winds are right, the brisket and sausages that issue from the battered steel smokers behind Bludso's original restaurant can seem less like meat than like a dream of meat.
Oddly enough, you can no longer find corazón y miel at Corazón y Miel, which is kind of a drag if you were really into that tiny ceviche of seared chicken hearts with honey, which you probably weren't. But you can still find crunchy headcheese tacos at the chopped and channeled cocktail lounge, and meltingly soft pigskin salad, and giant turkey leg sandwich that looks like something Bluto might take on a picnic with Olive Oyl. A young chef's recipe for success did not used to include opening a tequila bar in Bell, but what Eduardo Ruiz is doing here is pretty much the Latino equivalent of restaurants like Cassia, Lukshon, Pot and Bar Amá, where chefs classically trained in the European tradition focus their hard-won technique on the cuisines that they grew up eating. It's the vital edge of Los Angeles cooking. And there are wild boar chilaquiles at Sunday brunch.
If you have paid attention to Chowhound in the last decade or so, you probably know more than you want to know about the perigrinations of Sergio Peñuelas, a gifted chef who darted from kitchen to kitchen with his closely guarded recipe for Sinaloa-style pescado zarandeado, charcoal-grilled snook. The odd techniques involved, which apparently include a lot of jiggling and more mayonnaise than you may wish to contemplate, result in a moist, beautifully caramelized plate of fish. Peñuelas, one gathers, has moved once again. But Coni'Seafood still has the fish, at least for the moment, as well as a large menu of delicious seafood cocktails, smoked marlin tacos and shrimp dishes, some made with seafood the restaurant brings up itself from Mazatlan, and it is convenient to both the Forum and LAX.
The food in local Iranian restaurants, expats will always tell you, is not nearly as good as what their grandmothers used to make. And they are undoubtedly correct: The soul of the cuisine lies in its elaborate, long-cooked soups and stews, most of which would be difficult to replicate in the kebab parlors that line Westwood Boulevard. But the ab-goosht served at Attari on Friday afternoons, mashed chickpeas and simmered lamb served with herbs and a cup of their essential juices, that's a good reason to drive down to Tehrangeles. So is the thick Iranian soup called osh and the crisp French bread sandwiches stuffed with mortadella or calf's brain but more likely with a slice of the bright frittata called kuku, which seems equal parts chopped herbs and egg. The leafy patio of Attari is a bit of pre-revolutionary Tehran cafe society transplanted into a sleepy office courtyard. And if you insist, you can also get a kebab.
The Little Ethiopia strip on South Fairfax grows denser by the year, and another nexus of Ethiopian cafes seems to be forming in Inglewood. It has never been easier to find gored gored or a plate of tibs; stacks of freshly made sour injera or fitfits of every description. But it is hard to stay away from Genet Agonafer's softly lighted bistro, where the raw-beef kitfo is impossibly fragrant, the vegetarian platters are as huge as they are alluring and the doro wot, a complex braise of chicken with berbere, cloves and goosefoot herb among many other things, which could be an Ethiopian answer to Oaxacan chicken mole, is worth every minute of the three days it reportedly takes to prepare.
Has it really been 20 years since I last saw Mauro Vincenti, whose Rex was surely the grandest Italian restaurant California has ever seen? Sometimes it feels as if I have just spoken to him about Ligurian olive oil or especially fragrant porcini, especially when I am about to open a bottle of nicely aged Barbaresco. I once wrote that Vincenti, opened and run for decades by his widow, Maureen Vincenti, was the best Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. Even now it is the most grown-up, a civilized place to enjoy Nicola Mastronardi's superb roasted quail with favas, postage-stamp pasta with clams and rapini, and the grilled cuttlefish salad against which all others need to be measured. On Mondays, there are pizzas from the wood-burning ovens; on Fridays, Brentwood turns out for long, winey lunches of strozzapreti and grilled sea bass.
Sea Harbour is where you should probably go if you are having dinner with Maggie Cheung or Jackie Chan. It is by consensus the most serious Hong Kong-style restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, which means that the kitchen has a serious sub-specialty in bird's nests, dried sea cucumbers and other esoterica of the Cantonese table but that it also has tanks full of lively seafood on the fin, and in the mornings, the baked pork buns and scallop dumplings to which the other dim sum restaurants in the area can only aspire. If you forgo the pleasures of the live tanks, the tabs are almost reasonable.
Celestino Drago has helped to define a certain corner of the Los Angeles restaurant experience at least since the early 1980s, and his masculine, user-friendly style of Italian cooking is as popular in his family's restaurants in Pasadena and Sherman Oaks as it is in his own in Beverly Hills. There is something comforting in knowing that the chef who oversees a small restaurant empire is happiest when up to his elbows in game birds he's preparing for the next day's ragù. Drago Centro is a downtown restaurant in the old tradition, with a warren of private dining rooms and waiters who know enough to nod understandingly when you say you've just gone gluten-free. But Drago and his longtime chef de cuisine, Ian Gresik, have always been ace with pasta, the garganelli with sausage and fennel, the pappardelle with pheasant and morels, and handmade spaghetti with Sicilian almond pesto are as grand as the skyscraper view from the grand dining room. As you might expect in a restaurant owned by a hunter, there is a lot of pleasure in the venison and the duck.
There are those, and I sometimes count myself along them, who maintain that the xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung are perhaps overengineered, the dumpling skins perhaps too stretchy and thin, the fillings not quite pungent enough. Yet there is a reason the restaurant's admirers wait two hours for a table on weekends, not just here but in Shanghai and the mothership in Taipei, and it is neither the mustard greens with ginger nor the steamed chicken soup. The xiaolongbao are small miracles: plump, round spheres, soft yet firm to the touch, delicately fragranced. When you pop one into your mouth, it bursts into a mouthful of broth — boiling liquid if you haven't allowed it to cool — transforming the filling of meat and aromatics into a loose, savory purée that melts away like pork-scented air. If you happen to be in the Glendale restaurant, you may as well splash out for the truffled xiaolongbao, which are as beautifully scented as almost anything you'd find on a $120 tasting menu.
Was the chefly California gastropub perfected in Santa Monica or Echo Park? It was not. Playground is in Santa Ana, where Lime Truck vet Jason Quinn also controls a restaurant a few steps south and a big chunk of the nearby food hall complex. You will have heard of maybe three of the beers on their lengthy tap list and you will almost certainly have scored a plate of charred-Brussels sprout Caesar salad with corn bread, which sounds like the punchline to a Trevor Noah routine but is against all odds delicious, as well as some vinegar-soaked fried chicken and a three-bone pork chop that is probably best described in geological terms: I'm thinking "mesa" or possibly "cliff." Did all the good new chefs in Orange County come from the world of food trucks? It is beginning to seem that way.
When our Beijing correspondent Julie Makinen wrote a story last year about the local fad for gigantic menus, a lot of her San Gabriel Valley readers nodded in recognition. Because almost everyone with a penchant for shengjianbao, slightly doughy pan-fried pork dumplings that gush hot juice under your teeth, has spent a bit of time at Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village, branch of a small Shanghai-based chain, where the lavishly illustrated menu has the heft of a September Vogue. You could spend a good half an hour with the thing, trying to decide whether dinner should include chicken feet in abalone sauce or double-tube squid before deciding once again on a feast of steamed chicken with scallion oil, stone-pot fried rice and a crock of the Old Alley braised pork, which somehow tastes like a rich, miraculous cross between pork belly and candy. Afternoons, for some reason, feature a smaller menu of mostly Cantonese dim sum.
The pizza at Jon & Vinny's is neither pale like a California pie nor freckled like the Neapolitan model. It is charred and smoking, thin and almost too crisp to fold. The most popular pizza, called L.A. Woman, features a spare layer of tomato sauce, cool blurts of burrata and a leaf or two of basil. But this newest restaurant from Animal's Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo is a neighborhood pizzeria the way that Spago in 1982 was a neighborhood pizzeria, which is to say that the spare, bleached interior is featured in design magazines, Helen Johannesen's wine list is stunning, the pasta is made in the back and you are going to be eating a lot of vegetables, maybe crunchy cornmeal-dredged spring onions, grilled snap peas with ranch dressing or a Greek salad made with roasted beets. For dessert, there's old-school soft-serve ice cream, but if the season is right, you should really go for the caramelized pluots with mascarpone.
When it opened, Tsujita, a spinoff of a respected Tokyo ramen restaurant, was so far ahead of the other ramen parlors in town that the others may as well not have existed. The competition has improved — Tsujita itself has another ramen shop across the street, specializing in a chewy, extra-fatty Tokyo style — but the original Tsujita is still supreme. The pungent broth is made with Kurobuta pork bones simmered to a point almost beyond reason. The noodles (order them cooked hard) may act more as texture than as substance; they add little weight to the thick, milky brew. If anything, the tsukemen, chewy noodles served plain with a dipping sauce of greatly reduced broth, are even better, the essence of wheat, pig and smoke. Even the simmered egg, its yolk a vivid, reddish-yellow custard, is superb. And after years of serving ramen only in the afternoon, you can now get the noodles from morning until late at night, so it is no longer necessary to invent excuses for an unusually long lunch hour when you happen to work across town.
The center of Armenian life in Los Angeles long ago shifted from Hollywood's Little Armenia neighborhood to Glendale, and the Lebanese diaspora in the United States is vast. Yet I can't tell you how many times I have become excited about a Lebanese dish I ran across in Anaheim or Dearborn only to discover that Sossi Brady had been making it at Marouch since Reagan was in the White House. Everybody comes to Marouch for the wonderful mezze — not just the usual hummus and stuffed grape leaves, but also the pungent cheese called shanklish, grilled quail with garlic sauce, fried baby sardines and frog's legs with lemon, as well as for the roast chicken and the kebabs. But the heart of the place may lie in its roster of homey Armenian specials, including baked fish with pine nuts and the okra stew bamieh.
Old downtown, or at least parts of old downtown, have never quite forgiven Ledlow for not being Pete's, the beloved restaurant it supplanted. But really, Ledlow is still a neighborhood restaurant — not necessarily a destination for late-night burgers and cheese fries, but a restaurant for what Main Street has become as opposed to what some of the old-timers think it should still be. I have noticed that I tend to start every meal there with a crudité plate and a brandy old-fashioned, as if I were dining in a bowling-alley dining room in a small Wisconsin town. But those crudités are fairly spectacular, of course, a long plank with blistered okra, charred stems of broccolini and whatever else may be in season. The brandy old-fashioned, a cocktail I have never seen outside the Upper Midwest, has been upgraded, rendered pleasantly cocktailian. And Josef Centeno's cooking here is basically improved 1940s Americana: things like chicken meatballs in cream, grilled seafood cocktails, braised beef shoulder with kumquats and Mrs. G.W. Sanborn's shrimp that James Beard would have been proud to call his own.
Tin Vuong's beef tartare involves hand-chopped beef, pear, egg yolk and pine nuts in the manner of the Korean raw-beef dish yuk hwe; a light dusting of Sichuan peppercorns from western China and it looks like American steak tartare. There is a smear of bone marrow paste — French? You scoop it all up with cassava chips, which you may associate with Indonesian grocery stores. A torn mint leaf and hint of star anise steers the dish at the end toward Vietnam, which is kind of a neat trick. In his own quiet way, Vuong wants to blow your mind. So the beachy, happy restaurant has Fugazi and Black Flag lyrics splashed onto the walls, the music playing is gangsta rap, the happy butterflies painted on the bathroom wall are in the process of pulling the pin on a hand grenade, and you are never sure whether the chopped and channeled versions of nem nuong, bánh xeo and chao tom lean more toward Vietnamese or New American cuisine.
Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are among the most successful young restaurateurs in Los Angeles, with a disciplined, ingredient-forward approach to cooking that inspires aspiring chefs around the country (and at least five restaurants on this list). But they are also, y'know, dudes. And against all odds, they have managed to keep Son of a Gun, their seafood restaurant, in its Florida fish-camp groove instead of succumbing to the waves of poke, fish tacos and crispy-rice sushi rolling over Los Angeles at the moment. I mean, there is a poke on the menu, although the radish escabeche pulls it away from Hawaii, and even a lobster roll. But half the people in the dining room are there for the fried-chicken sandwiches. And the smoked fish dip, the peel-and-eat shrimp and the shrimp toast with Sriracha aioli are exactly the kinds of things you want to eat in the kind of place with Bob Seger on the Spotify stream and an Evinrude sign on the wall. Is the lobster BLT more sophisticated than you might expect? Have another Dark and Stormy.
All it takes is one visit to RC Provisions, who supplies the pastrami to nearly everyone in this part of the world, to realize what you may have suspected all along: Langer's pastrami really is the best, the crown jewel of the planet — unique in cut, cure and smoke. This may be why the fragrant delicatessen, anchor of the Westlake district since 1947, charges slightly more for a pastrami sandwich than do its competitors in and around Beverly Hills. If you haven't been to Langer's in a while, you might be surprised to see the long lines on a Saturday afternoon, everyone waiting for a shot at the Russian dressing-inflected No. 19 on double-baked rye.
Southern California is where practically all burger fashions have been born, including the cheeseburger, the drive-up window and the chili size. So it was inevitable that the first modernist hamburger restaurant, Umami Burger, whose burgers are cooked for a long time at low temperature before they are seared off on a griddle, should have popped up here. And if you are looking for the gear-head version of a modernist burger, the first place you should turn to is Plan Check, a mini-chain from Ernesto Uchimura, Umami Burger's first executive chef. The namesake Plan Check Burger is frosted with seaweed-enhanced cheese, flavored with a translucent square of ketchup leather and tucked into an otherworldly crunch bun. There is an eerie sense that the details of the burger have been checked and rechecked like the safety systems on a new car, from the ergonomics of the ideal bite to the pleasantly crunchy bits adhering to the bun. Also: pastrami fries and barrel-aged old-fashioneds on tap. Hats off.
A bialy's throw from the giant binoculars that mark Google's Los Angeles offices, Gjusta, from the people behind Gjelina, is the de facto Silicon Beach canteen. The bakers' cotton coats are fetishized on fashion blogs, the baklava croissants are cult objects and neighborhood protests about the size of the parking lot until recently have had the curious effect of making it a restaurant without chairs. So you hover along the mile-long deli case, a counterperson eventually notices your helplessness and helps you assemble lunch — maybe a smoked-fish plate, maybe a sandwich of chicken parmesan or hot, sliced porchetta with melted cheese, maybe a salad of cold vinegared cauliflower with capers or dense labneh seasoned with za'atar. If your karma is good, you'll find a place to stand. There's no alcohol (those zoning issues again), but the cucumber lemonade is pretty good. Unless you happen to be a kale smoothie kind of person, which probably means that we can never be friends.
Chefly obsession turns out to work pretty well in cafes. You really do want a perfectionist supervising your scones, your babka and your quinoa bran muffins, and even fruit tarts don't have to be quite so rustic. And while you'd expect Quinn and Karen Hatfield to bear down in the kitchen at Odys + Penelope up the street, their particular brand of precision is a gift to those of us who sometimes like to pop into a place for a bite of chicken salad or a chopped salad, or maybe some blintzes or a plate of eggs Benedict at brunch. The Sycamore Kitchen's masterpiece? A turkey sandwich, believe it or not: thick slices of nicely brined bird layered on dense housemade bread with thin slivers of just-ripe Camembert cheese, a few leaves of arugula and a bit of cherry mostarda.
Old Town Pasadena, as you may have heard, is not friendly to ambitious restaurants. Rents are high, check averages are low and even native Pasadenans are used to seeking their culinary epiphanies downtown. Some of the best chefs in California have foundered on its shoals. So it can seem like something like a miracle when you wander into Ración, where the Basque-influenced tapas might include squid stuffed with duck sausage, an elegant take on the garlicky fish dish pil pil or creamy caña de cabra goat cheese whose top has been sprinkled with sugar and crisped like a crème brûlée. Teresa Montaño's cooking has grown more confident, inspired by rather than exactly duplicating Basque flavors.
The pleasures of veganism, not so long ago the far frontier of meat-free dining, are not as elusive as they used to be. And Phillip Frankland Lee's bistro may be the first purely vegan restaurant ever opened by a carnivorous chef, an animal-free zone populated by hummus with seaweed chips served in clay planters and dips served in simulated birds' nests, where even the tres leches dessert manages to be dairy-free. This is not the place to contemplate a carrot. Its pleasures lean more toward tomato shooters, deep-fried stuffed olives and Vegetables in a Box (a tiny crate fashioned from crisped slivers of potato and filled with roasted, toasted, sautéed and pickled bits of whatever happens to be on hand that day). At the Gadarene Swine, uni isn't the new kale; kale is the new uni.
The last time I stopped by Sapp Coffee Shop, there was a pale, fragrant Thai drink made with pandan leaf and another infusion made with butterfly pea flowers and fresh lemongrass that was the exact color of grape Kool-Aid. For dessert, there were tiny cones of leaf-wrapped coconut jelly made by a local woman. And I'm telling you this because, while almost everybody thinks of Sapp as a delivery system for clove-scented duck noodles, Thai Town's spiciest, funkiest boat noodles, and herb-green jade noodles tossed with Chinese barbecue, I fear there may be depths to its kitchen, even beyond the Isaan-style grilled chicken and the pig's-ear-enhanced pork salad nam sod that I will never explore.
There are, it must be admitted, probably 10,000 places to eat Mexican food in the area that aren't run by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger — some of them also have trucks, a television presence and sleek restaurants that serve excellent margaritas. But while Milliken and Feniger's crisp professionalism and farmers market ingredients may no longer be novel in local kitchens, their clean, bright tropical palette and pool-party sense of fun still make Border Grill worth visiting. It is the rare mainstream Mexican restaurant whose tacos don't make you yearn for a truck parked by an auto parts junkyard somewhere in East L.A.
Chichén Itzá hosts habanero-eating contests. Chichén Itzá puts out cookbooks in English and Spanish. In autumn, Chichén Itzá holds workshops on making unusually crisp Day of the Dead tamales big enough to feed a water polo team. The first time I ate at Chichén Itzá, I booked a flight to the Yucatan as soon as I got home. Because if the Yucatecan cooking was this good at this restaurant stall in La Paloma, a community-run marketplace just east of USC, I could only imagine how delicious it might be in the place of its birth. (To tell the truth, it was about the same.) The menu devised by Gilberto Cetina junior and senior is a living, insanely spicy thesaurus of the codzitos and cochinito pibil, sopa de lima and papadzules that make up one of Mexico's spiciest cuisines. You are probably going to want at least one order of the panuchos, crisp, bean-stuffed tortillas drizzled with citrus and scattered with bright pink strands of pickled onion. And while you're at it, get a cup of the agua fresca made with chaya leaves too. It has to be healthy.
The original Craft near New York's Gramercy Park may have been the first real 21st century restaurant in America, arguably the restaurant where both the modern sharing-plates menu and the current buttoned-up casual style of service were born — it was the first place to invite its customers to eat like a chef. Not long afterward, its chef, Tom Colicchio, was rocketed to media stardom by TV's "Top Chef," its briskness was mistaken for formality and Craft became a national brand, as kind of a chefly chophouse. The Century City restaurant, a Neutra-influenced fortress built in the shadow of CAA, was never casual in the least. You are likely to see more ties here than anywhere else on the Westside, and you sometimes get the feeling that the 1 p.m. seating chart is engraved somewhere on a platinum-iridium bar. The cooking? High-quality ingredients straightforwardly prepared: crisp-skinned quail, pork belly with peaches, roast salmon with butter beans, and a garden's worth of roasted and sautéed vegetables.
Khinkali are soup dumplings from the mountains north of Tbilisi, Georgia. A proper khinkali is about the size and heft of a lemon, a lump of oniony meat encased in a sturdy pleated wrapper gathered at the top in a thick, doughy knob. Tumanyan Khinkhali Factory is a khinkali specialist hidden in a Glendale courtyard, a branch of the most famous khinkali restaurant in Armenia's capital, Yerevan. You grab a khinkali by its knob, which will be the only part cool enough to touch; you bite off a bit of the top and suck down the boiling juice; and you finish the rest in one or two glorious, meaty bites. The knobs are technically edible, but don't bother. The pile of spent knobs on your plate, like the pile of empty shells at a clambake, is a sign of an hour well-spent.
David Chang, the New York chef who bestrides the world like a colossus, made his reputation, at least in part, with his version of Korean bossam: a DIY platter of fatty pork that you wrap into cabbage with sliced chiles, turnip kimchi, fermented daikon, tiny salted shrimp and fresh oysters. Chang's version was made with roasted pork shoulder lacquered with chile paste. Kobawoo's more austere bossam, the traditional kind, is made with boiled pork belly, which brings out the sweet funkiness of the condiments. Bossam is not only one of the great Korean dishes, it is also a party on a plate, especially Kobawoo's bossam, which is still probably the best in Koreatown. The crisp seafood pancakes, chilled pig's feet and game hens stuffed with ginseng and sticky rice are pretty great too.
Taco regionalism? I'm all for it, from the Mexico City-style chicharrones prensado tacos at Tacos DF in South Gate to the Ensenada fish tacos at Tacos Baja Ensenada in East L.A., the Cuernavaca battleship tacos at the Alebrijes truck in Santa Ana to the spicy Sinaloan chilorio tacos at El Sinaloense in Huntington Park. If you've been to Mexicali Taco & Co., Esdras Ochoa's tidy storefront on Figueroa near Dodger Stadium, you have probably had its namesake Mexicali tacos: flame-crisped bits of chopped carne asada packed into fat flour tortillas that they bring up from Baja a couple of times a week, that you finish yourself with runny taquería guacamole and a shot or two of hot salsa. There's nothing quite like them in Los Angeles — you can even get a vegetarian one if that's your thing. And like everybody else who visits, you will probably become obsessed with the vampiros: rather larger flour tortillas folded over chorizo, chicken or carne asada, maybe all three, with a dab or two of garlic sauce and a gooey payload of melted Mexican cheese.
It wasn't so long ago that your status as a player in the Los Angeles restaurant scene was determined by your relationship to Valentino, a bunkerlike Italian restaurant ruled then as now by Piero Selvaggio. Valentino was — is — among the last of the great host-driven Italian restaurants, a place where some regulars have never seen a menu and the waiter's job is to solidify your abstract desire into fish and pasta and wine. And even as an apprentice glutton privileged to dine at the restaurant with food-world luminaries, I could tell whom Selvaggio deemed worthy of Valentino's A game and whom he did not — a judgment rendered in a hundred subtle details. You could spend a lifetime trying to decipher the code. Valentino was the first restaurant here to serve white truffles, balsamic vinegar or radicchio, the first to fetishize great olive oil and the first as devoted to Italian wine as the French places were to Bordeaux. If you are of an income and an inclination to command an ancient vintage of Barolo, I believe you will find Valentino to be much as it ever was.
Most of the fashionable restaurants in Los Angeles have adopted izakaya service by now — we've become used to small plates and sharing plates, booze-oriented menus and meals whose progress is better thought of as a series of waves rather than courses. So at Kinjiro, the most elegant izakaya in Little Tokyo at the moment, you order sake and then perhaps tiny, salty snacks that might include a bit of flying squid fermented in its own ink. There may be tiny parfaits of sea urchin layered with crab, raw scallop and ponzu jelly; vinegared mackerel dotted with the spice paste yuzo kosho; and freshly made tofu with mushrooms. And you will also find much more meat than you may be expecting at an izakaya: bubbling vessels of beef tongue, sinew and tripe simmered in miso; sashimi of Wagyu beef; chicken thigh roulade; and a spectacular dish of marrowbone dengaku, split, smeared with miso and broiled as if it were from an eggplant instead of a cow.
On the day my daughter turned 21 this year, I took her for her first martini at Musso & Frank. There was no question. And I'm afraid the rest of her drinking life will be downhill from there. Because if a restaurant was once forward-thinking enough to let William Faulkner hop behind the bar to mix his own mint juleps, the rest of us can do nothing but clutch our gin rickeys a little tighter in gratitude. Musso's may be the last restaurant in America still operating in basic pre-Prohibition mode, and its menu of steaks, chops and sand dabs; chiffonade salads and turkey à la king; sweetbreads jardinière and lamb kidneys with bacon; apple cobbler and diplomat pudding, is one that any country club regular would have recognized in 1919. The waiters are still resplendent in their smoking jackets and ties. Do I sometimes mourn the disappearance of finnan haddie from the menu, that the jellied consommé is served plain instead of in iced metal bowls and that for rice pudding I now have to go to the Grill down the street? Perhaps, although I am also aware that I may have been the only man younger than 80 to order those things. Instead, I choose to celebrate Musso's with an avocado cocktail, a dish of Welsh rarebit and another martini. If it's a Thursday, I may get chicken pot pie instead.
Mayura, it must be said, tries pretty hard to be all things to all people. One of its kitchens prepares southern Indian vegetarian food for the restaurant's Hindu clientele, the other meaty dishes, strictly halal, acceptable to Muslims. There are lunch buffets for the thrifty and evening iftar buffets during Ramadan. You can order online. It delivers. And for our purposes, it is also a wonderful place to taste the cooking of Kerala, the cosmopolitan strip of southern India that touches the Arabian Sea: the coconut-scented vegetable stew called avial, Kerala fish curry soured with tamarind, the saucer-shaped rice-flour saucers called appam, and ven pongal, which is a rice dish laced with cumin, cashews and lots of butter. Very few people manage to get through a meal at Mayura without at least one masala dosa, a huge crepe rolled around spiced potatoes, unless it is to get the "ghee roast'' dosa that comes to the table shaped into a kind of crisp, butter-saturated dunce cap.
When you get in your car and drive to Aqui es Texcoco, you are not there for the Mexican craft beers, the promise of handmade pulque or the sturdy quesadillas. The mixiotes, stews baked in parchment with fat slivers of agave leaf, are delicious, especially the one made with rabbit, but they are as minor a diversion as the roasted lambs' heads. You are there for vast portions of lamb barbacoa, pit-roasted with those agave leaves, chewy and gelatinous and touched with crunchy bits of char. You eat the lamb with stacks of hot tortillas, puddles of beans, freshly made guacamole and foam cups of consommé fashioned from the drippings of the lamb, served so hot that your flimsy plastic spoon is likely to curl up in its depths. And come early. The barbacoa is often sold out by early afternoon.
There may be no lonchero more famous than Raul Ortega, who tends to win every festival contest he enters and whose regulars drive from as far as San Diego to taste his aguachile, his mammoth Poseidon seafood tostadas and, of course, the crunchy shrimp tacos that are the specialty of his hometown, San Juan de los Lagos. Ortega's truck has been parked in this spot for 14 years, and for nearly all of those years he has maintained a friendly rivalry with another lonchero, serving precisely the same menu, parked a hundred yards west down the block. Those shrimp tacos, tacos dorados de camarones, taste of salt and corn and clean oil, and then, as you crunch through it, of the smaller, brinier crunch of fresh shrimp. No matter how nicely you ask, Ortega will neither tell you where he buys his seafood nor what the source of the slight creaminess at the center might be. They are his secrets. If you would rather not eat your tacos while leaning against your car, Mariscos Jalisco now has a small dining room adjacent to the truck.
The concept of Asian American fusion gets tossed around a lot here. Garlic & Chives is the other kind of fusion, an Asian chef, Kristin Nguyen, looking at American chefs looking at Asian cuisines. In practice, this means that the restaurant feels a little like an American izakaya, but what's on the sharing plates is very Vietnamese: pomelo salad, deep-fried salmon belly, herb-intensive rice-paper rolls and a curried goat stew served with a crisp, hot baguette. Standards, like stewed pork belly or catfish in caramel sauce, are served with sticky rice scorched in a cast-iron skillet until the mass turns into something more closely resembling a loosely rolled noodle, and a crisply fried Vietnamese-spiced version of Chengdu Taste's famous toothpick lamb. But mostly there are drifts of fried minced garlic, crunchy as Grape Nuts, scattered over everything but dessert. Fried garlic is its own reward.
There are those who might dismiss Baekjeong as a chain restaurant owned by a celebrity, the Korean equivalent of the Hard Rock Cafe. And they are right, at least inasmuch as the place is owned by a Korean wrestler turned reality show star, there are several other Baekjeongs in South Korea and the U.S., and tourists do still pause to take pictures of themselves wrapping their arms around the life-size cutout of him that wobbles outside the front door. Plus, they're going to blast "Gangnam Style'' at you every 15 minutes whether you like it or not. But even given the two-hour wait for a table on weekends, Baekjeong turns out to be one of the better Korean barbecue places in town: set menus of short ribs and bulgogi and beef tongue and pork belly nicely seared off on big tabletop charcoal grills. The grills are surrounded by built-in wells in which scrambled eggs and corn cheese will cook in the course of your meal. And you should also probably get an order of shaken dosirak, a Korean lunchbox that you whang around until the contents rearrange into a crude bibimbap. It may be the only standard restaurant dish anywhere in the world whose origin points to a bored 6-year-old on a playground.
Nyesha Arrington is an experimentalist at heart, I think, the kind of chef who plunges into the farmers market, fills her crates and only then asks herself what she might do with all of the peak-season produce. So at her bright Venice bistro, you find cauliflower in her cheesy pommes aligot, beef heart in her meatballs and a stratum of minted mushy peas underneath her seared salmon. The chocolate ganache shortbread is sprinkled with both Maldon salt and tiny lavender blossoms. And you might find just about everything on her crudités plate: miniature turnips, cherry tomatoes, carrot fronds and that leafy part of the celery bunch that you usually throw away, but when you dip them into curried chickpeas, all is right in the world.
One of the terrific things about big cafes is their ability to give shape to neighborhoods that may never before have had much of a center; to act as a third place, neither work nor home, for locals to gather — and probably to drive gentrification too, but that's another story. It can be nice to realize that you live within walking distance of well-made cortados and avocado toast. And one of the most pleasant to open in the Sqirl era may be Lincoln, where Christine Moore and her baker, Cecilia Leung, have brought kouign-amann and vegetable tartines, breakfast salads and herb-stuffed croissants, to a corner of northwestern Pasadena that never knew it needed those things. So you will have a plate of gravlax, or you will have a farro bowl with chickpeas, but you will also probably wait in line for these things.
Wang Xing Ji is the first American branch of a popular dumpling house in Wuxi, a lakeside city about 45 minutes out of Shanghai. Actually, Wang Xing Ji is the dumpling house in Wuxi, over a century old, the one restaurant every guidebook seems to mention. The dishes are famous for their sweetness — even the fantastic soup dumplings, which are presumably what you are here to taste, although you can opt for unsweetened dumplings if you worry about that sort of thing. On most days, I think I may prefer Wang Xing Ji's soup dumplings to the more famous ones at Din Tai Fung. The candied Wuxi spare ribs and the Salt & Pepper Crispy Cake are also worth your while. And you may as well try a giant crab and pork bun, a smoking-hot dumpling the size of a water balloon, sneakily full of boiling soup, which you are encouraged to sip like a milkshake through an oversized plastic straw. It is the only way.
In the last few years I have been sending people to Pho Filet in South El Monte for pho, to Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa for charcoal-grilled meatballs and to Nha Trang for bun bo Hue. When it comes to com tam, broken rice, Com Tam Thuan Kieu is the best bet; for bánh beo, it's Summer Roll. And that's not even taking into consideration the bun cha Hanoi, the bánh cuon, the seven courses of goat and whatever down in Orange County's Little Saigon. Why then does the line outside Golden Deli stretch halfway to infinity on weekends? Because it always has, because the restaurant set the pho standard in the San Gabriel Valley probably before you were born and because the cha gio, crackly-skinned imperial rolls stuffed with pork and crab among other things, are the best in the observable universe.
It is hard to believe at the moment, but not long ago Sichuan peppercorns were illegal, fuqi feiipan was unknown here and the only real Sichuan restaurant in town was a few tables crammed into a former House of Pies. But Sichuan cooking has exploded in the San Gabriel Valley, not least because of the success of Chengdu Taste. And Szechuan Impression, whose chef is fresh from a five-star restaurant in Chengdu, is probably the restaurant in town that leans the closest to Sichuan haute cuisine: not just toothpick lamb and boiled fish in chile sauce but also fresh bamboo sprouts lightly dressed with chile, chewy smoked pig's ears, tea-smoked spareribs, dry-fried farm chickens and soupy Leshan beef, all of which are distinctly less fire-breathing and a bit more nuanced than what you tend to find elsewhere in the SGV. Do you want Cinderella's Pumpkin Ride and some honey pomelo tea after your still admittedly spicy meal? You have been asked more difficult questions.
In 2009, Nickel Diner seemed like the future of downtown's Main Street, a dream of a diner, designed to look undesigned, on the site of a long-forgotten greasy spoon where the transactions were not necessarily of the culinary sort. Suddenly, there was arugula on the BLT, the hash was made with pulled pork instead of canned meat, and the hot doughnuts, made by an actual pastry chef, were glazed with maple and bacon. Now, its block marked with both luxury lofts and homeless shelters, Nickel Diner basically is the neighborhood, distinctly of both worlds, and Monica May and Kristen Trattner seem to know everybody who drops by, from artists to financial guys to street musicians. The menu includes the pancakes, fried eggs and bacon without which there would be rebellion in the streets, but Nickel Diner also bakes its own bread, stuffs avocadoes with quinoa and makes delicious fried catfish with corn cakes.
"Figs on a plate,'' a New York chef once snarled, referring to the California practice of presenting perfect farmers market produce without feeling obliged to do that much to it. And on your first visit, the cooking at Bruce Kalman's restaurant can seem pretty minimal: roast a carrot, cut up melons, sear some fish, put a little lardo on the peaches. Even the dishes Union is most famous for — fennel-rubbed pork roast, salmon crudo, bread and butter — might strike an aficionado of haute cuisine as perhaps too simple. But what Kalman makes is usually pretty delicious — that bread-and-butter plate, hot, crisp and served with a tiny jar of giardeniera that he pickles himself, is less a way to kill time until the rooster-crest pasta with Ventura sardines shows up than it is a statement of purpose. You're probably going to want the Santa Barbara mussels steamed in guanciale broth. And while that tight cylinder of spaghetti alla chitarra may be ready for its Instagram close-up, it is still a pretty charismatic plate of spaghetti in tomato sauce. If such a thing as a California-cuisine theme restaurant existed, it would probably look a lot like this.