1 Suckling pig. Or rather, a small but not insignificant portion of a suckling pig no larger than a house cat, brined and roasted and roasted and brined until its skin is as thin and crisp as the burnt wisp of sugar that tops a really good crème brûlée, and the meat below, well-nourished with the pig’s fine layer of fat, is as rich and tender as an infant’s first coos. Mission 261, a new Cantonese banquet hall that could fairly be called the most accomplished Chinese restaurant in the United States, is good at so many things, but the pig is in a universe of its own.
2 Red-chile burrito. San Francisco burritos could almost be called elegant (if you had a few beers in you). But the burritos at Lupe’s, a worn, old lunch stand in East Los Angeles, are minimalist, almost Spartan in their appeal: crisp, slender packets of beans and spicy chile sauce folded into crisp, well-toasted tortillas, elemental and thoroughly soulful in their appeal. Our burritos could eat their burritos for lunch.
3 Kulfi. In rural India, a dhabais a kind of self-service roadside joint frequented by truckers: frequently mobbed, frequently equipped with woven-rope cots for the weary drivers, and tinted with a reputation for both great, steaming vats of creamy Punjabi food and a tolerance for the sorts of vices you might expect a long-distance truck driver to be interested in pursuing. Translated to Westwood, Ambala Dhaba is India without the elephants. And after the meal comes the homemade Indian ice cream, kulfi, a caramely boiled-milk confection that is served molded into little cones.
4 Pig’s feet. Full House is almost a throwback to the primordial L.A. teahouses, extraordinarily inexpensive, populated with an AARP clientele and specializing in elegant versions of the kind of dim sum some of us fell in love with back when the San Gabriel Valley was still the whitest precinct in America. The food is so old-fashioned as almost to defy description: pig’s feet chopped into pieces and stewed in thick, gingery soy sauce, a glutinous taste of heaven ladled from a giant earthen crock.
5 Peanut chews. The older parts of distant Bakersfield are home to some of the greatest unreconstructed dining in California, including Basque boarding-house restaurants that have been serving since the 19th century, a creaky Italian place that has been dishing out pasta fazool for 85 years and bars that haven’t changed much since repeal. Not least among these is Dewar’s, a candy shop/ice cream parlor that has been slinging fudge-drooling sundaes since 1909, as well as manufacturing its famous peanut chews, which are Tootsie Roll–size cylinders of taffy barely encompassing payloads of salty, crunchy ground peanuts.
6 Baked fish. The famous baked fish at Phong Dinh is a monster of an animal, a thick-skinned Vietnamese catfish barely shy of a yard, blackened and smoking, the twin prongs of its signature mustachio charred into crumbling Salvador Dalí curls. You have undoubtedly encountered a catfish or two in your time, but this is another thing altogether, a juice-dripping beast that looks as if it could have engulfed a loaf of French bread as easily as a boa constrictor swallows a wild pig.
7 Boat noodles. If you have ever visited one of Bangkok’s floating markets, you may have tasted something like these noodles from an itinerant vendor who came drifting by, a murky beef soup rich with the flavor of simmered organ meats, amplified with shrieking chile heat and anchored with the tartness of lime. The slippery, flash-boiled rice noodles are at least as much a texture as a substance in their own right. And at Sapp Coffee Shop, a venerable lunch restaurant in the heart of Thai Town, the boat noodles with beef are just right.
8 Barbecued pork belly. Toad House’s reason for being is its barbecued pork belly, the meaty, streaky, especially succulent strips of fat meat brought out to the table looking like nothing so much as a pound of uncured bacon, which you sizzle yourself on a cone-shaped tabletop grill. The belly hisses, it sputters, it bleeds delicious fat down onto a halo of shiitake mushrooms, and when it is finally crisp, you roll it with shreds of spicy scallion salad into a slippery square of rice noodle, swab it with what appears to be an elegant dust made from powdered beans and dip it into a sort of chile-spiked Korean ponzu. The little belly rolls are fantastic things, spicy and sweet, soft and crisp, an apparent cardiac nightmare crammed with enough vegetables to make even an internist smile.
9 Green-papaya salad. If you’ve attended services at African-American churches, you may be familiar with the massive spreads of smothered chicken and collard greens that sometimes follow the sermon. Weekends at the big Wat Thai, there is the Thai version: delicious, numbingly hot and attended by all Los Angeles. Of special note is the woman who makes the green-papaya salad in the massive mortar, flinging in handfuls of dried shrimp or tiny salted crabs, expressing just the right amount of juice out of the vegetable-like fruit. But if you ask her to make the salad spicy, watch out. Because with a flick of her wrist, the papaya-salad woman can bring even the stoutest Thai person to his knees.