View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "99 Essential Restaurants 2010."
When is a restaurant not a restaurant? It's not a rhetorical question, actually, not this year. I really don't know. Because just as parts of Los Angeles have become familiar, through the miracle of film, as suburban Connecticut, the African jungle, Gotham City and a Korean battlefield circa 1954, to the point that it is impossible to go to the actual DMZ and not be a little disappointed that it doesn't look enough like the Malibu hills, some of the most interesting Los Angeles restaurants at the moment are as illusory as light on a screen.
Glazed pork-belly adobo for lunch? Check your Twitter feed. The truck that serves it may be around the corner or it may be two counties away. The cocktailian whose mezcal drinks you crave shifts venues more often than an NBA team on the road. Restlessness has long been a local characteristic, and we were famous for drive-ins, dine-and-dash hash houses and takeout windows long before the advent of tapas trucks and pedal-powered popsicle carts.
The best enchiladas I've ever tasted were made by a woman whose makeshift stand occasionally pops up around the corner from a more established stand whose location I can never quite figure out. The most celebrated young chef in Los Angeles imports his restaurant into a different kitchen every couple of months, like a soufflé-happy hermit crab inhabiting a new shell. At one of the most popular new places in town, your dinner may be prepared one night by one of the most famous chefs in Mexico; the next by a moonlighting lackey from a place you wouldn't eat at with somebody else's mouth.
Is the restaurant the empty taqueria where the cook watches Lucha Libre between customers, or is it that taqueria's truck out in the parking lot, with lines stretching down the block? Is reality the hamachi with pig's foot that you eat at a famous restaurant, or is it that same hamachi with pig's foot handed over with a smile at a charity benefit buffet?
The mantra of Local, Seasonal, Sustainable, Organic has become so persistent in Los Angeles, and the crush of chefs at the farmers market is so pervasive, that the menus at some restaurants seem almost identical to one another at certain times of the year, and completely different from their own menus in spring. Heraclitus once wrote that it is impossible to step in the same river twice. In Los Angeles, it can be nearly impossible to eat in the same restaurant twice.
This is, I believe, what the economists call creative destruction. And it is not impossible here to experience extremes — restaurants that are born and die in a single evening; restaurants in suburbs so distant that they may as well be theoretical; restaurants so hard to get into that they may not actually exist outside of blogs.
Los Angeles is where the modern restaurant was born, the good, the bad and the ugly of it, and we're too far gone to stop now.
Akasha, perhaps the star of its restaurant-clogged Culver City neighborhood, may push more of the late-oughts hot buttons than even a NRDC supporter could ask. The dining room is a place of recycled wood, hemp and organic cotton; the kitchen's commitment to organic, sustainable, certified, cruelty-free ingredients is renowned. You can enjoy a bowl of quinoa with tofu while your date tears through a pork chop with pureed onions and house-cured bacon. Akasha Richmond, who is both chef and muse here, may be a well-known vegan cook, columnist and TV chef who spent years making sure that Michael Jackson got the right kind of mung beans on tour, but if you'd rather have a burger, grilled albacore with shisito peppers, Cuban roast chicken with black beans or a plate of short ribs instead of a pizza with Weiser Farms eggplant, she makes sure that you are happy, too. Have a salty chocolate peanut bar for dessert. 9543 Culver Blvd., Culver City. (310) 845-1700, akasharestaurant.com. Lunch Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thurs., 5:30-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m., Sun., 5-9 p.m. Full bar. Takeout and catering. Bakery. Garage parking. All major CC. Location map here.
Za'atar salad — have you ever had za'atar salad? You can probably find the stuff on any corner in Beirut, but on Alcazar's shaded patio, scented with grilling mullet and hookah smoke, it is a revelation, a fresh herb with the fragrance of thyme but less of its pungency, tossed with a little lemon and oil. When you eat za'atar salad in the heat of an Encino summer, it seems as if the temperature drops 15 or 20 degrees. Newly relocated to its original location from a year or so in Westwood, Alcazar is one of the finest Middle Eastern kitchens in Los Angeles. The cooks reportedly are Egyptian and Lebanese, but the owner, a well-known Armenian crooner who sometimes sings here on weekends, is not above insisting on putting Armenian versions of hummus and the raw-beef dish kibbe nayeh on his menus, to go along with the fried sea bass with fried pita and tahini; stuffed grape leaves; and a dish of sautéed chicken livers with pomegranate that are delicious enough to make you forget you don't necessarily like innards. This is the place to go for superbly crunchy boreg, juicy chicken kebabs, grilled quail and the whole panoply of meze, grilled meats, salads, fish and makdoos. 17239 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 789-0991, al-cazar.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10:30 p.m., Sat., 11:30-2 a.m., Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Full bar. Hookah and cigar lounge. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. All major CC. Location map here.