Best Of :: Food & Drink
The Pacific Coast Highway is rife with reasons to crane one's neck: occasional deer on the ridge line of the eastern mountains; the brown fiberglass horse at the European & Equestrian Pet Supply; the towering serape'd Hispanic at La Salsa, forever offering a platter of food; and until recently, the two fake sacks of money emblazoned with dollar signs and slung over telephone wires like so many Norwegian tennis shoes. But the Reel Inn, directly across from Topanga State Beach, offers a slightly wittier kind of beckoning neck breaker: a signboard with a seafood-related pun that, as reliable as the movement of the tides, changes daily. For example: "A Clockwork Orange Roughy" and "Lady Chatterley's Lobster." A tradition that began more than 20 years ago, when the space was the Topanga Fish Market, the puns are written by five managers, though the public is welcome to submit ideas. Not exactly the New Yorker cartoon-caption contest, but still ....
The Reel Inn is the kind of seafood dive native to small California coastal towns, compounded in charm by the allure of the beach and the surfing beyond. Its food is made to be enjoyed after exertion: explicitly, after a long coastal drive that injects muscles with creakiness and slowly burns tired eyes. Implicitly, after wrestling with waves wresting boards and stamina, frosting the body with a salt veneer and the sheer joy of having battled the world and emerged alive, if not necessarily victorious. The inn's wide tin-roofed shack borders on hovel hood, shot through with surfboards and no shortage of stuffed sea creatures. The airy patio, the fish tacos, the unwittingly ironic tanks of tropical fish, the cold beers and wood floors stompable for even the most accursed bluesman — all these exist happily beneath fans spinning in varying degrees of laziness on the day I had my chowder, the sign reading "Fish You Were Here."—David Cotner
First-timers at the Brooklyn Bagel Bakery, a squat factory in a part of town now better known for burritos and Filipino sinigiang, are often put off by the display in the cramped retail vestibule, glass cases full of blueberry bagels and strawberry bagels, cranberry bagels and chocolate bagels, banana-nut bagels and other affronts to the proud tradition Brooklyn Bagel has been carrying on since Sandy Koufax still pitched in his native borough. The most crowded bin is the one holding the puffy, blown-out, oversweetened plain bagels more or less identical to the ones at suburban bagelries. Has Brooklyn Bagel sold out? Posterity will have to decide. But the signature product survives here as Hearth-Baked Bagels — just another flavor here perhaps, like pumpernickel or jalapeño-cheese, but these plain bagels are dense, chewy, taut-skinned and properly boiled before baking. They are still the best bagels west of the Hudson.—Jonathan Gold
The Cobb salad was invented at the old Hollywood Brown Derby when owner Bob Cobb, faced with either an overfull refrigerator or a starlet with troublesome bridgework, chopped the elements of a standard chef's salad into chunks no larger than a pea. He was always a couple of steps ahead, that guy, just as you would have to be if your fortune was based on chiffon cake and the Hollywood Stars baseball team. A great Cobb salad is less a feat of cuisine than an exercise in customization: If you can't express exact preferences on chopped bacon, chopped avocado, chopped chicken or chopped egg yolk, tossed or not tossed, dressing mixed in with the salad or meted out on the side, you probably don't belong in Hollywood. It may seem like a modest innovation, chopping a chef's salad, but Cobb salads were on the menu of practically every restaurant in America through the '60s, and continue to this day not just at the Hamburger Hamlet but in, say, the Asian-inflected Thai Cobb salad at Tiara. The Brown Derby is long gone, but the time-honored Beverly Hills Hotel variant known as the McCarthy Salad, which includes shredded cheddar cheese and beets, is permanently on the lunch menu at the Polo Lounge — no matter how much the establishment may prefer to feed you warm goat cheese or ahi tartare.—Jonathan Gold
Los Angeles, as has been amply proven, is a melting pot of world hot dog culture, a city where it is possible to find persuasive versions of Chicago hot dogs, New York street dogs, Okinawan-Jewish-Mexican hot dogs, Dodger Dogs, Chinese hot dogs, West Virginia coleslaw dogs, Colombian hot dogs and Chez Panisse–influenced organic hot dogs with pedigrees more impressive than a prize Pekinese. Some would argue that the city's most vital contribution to the hot dog diaspora is the chilidog at Pink's, and those people are probably correct — right now, even if you are reading this at a rainy 2:30 a.m., 112 people are probably lined up outside Pink's waiting for a chili kraut dog with everything. But I can't help thinking that the most important homegrown hot dog is probably the L.A. street dog, also known as the Danger Dog, the Tijuana Dog, the Ghetto Dog and the Dog Dog — you know, the mayo-slathered, chile-sluiced, grilled onion–smothered bacon-wrapped wonders bought from bootleg griddle masters outside Staples Center after a Lakers game or on Hollywood Boulevard after the clubs close. Those dogs, as the saying goes, are so good they're illegal: Cops tend to impound the griddles on the spot, and the dash of illicitness (or is it salmonella?) seems to add a certain flavor to the meat. You could take your chances on a cart downtown, where your entrée may come with a side of handcuffs. Or you could go to Fab, a Reseda joint that actually specializes in a kind of deep-fried New Jersey–style hot dog called the Ripper, but prepares a drippy, spicy, crunchy version of the street dog, served with homemade tater tots instead of a misdemeanor warrant.—Jonathan Gold
We are living in an age not just of cupcakes but of cupcakes with publicists, exquisitely art-directed confections whose geometric decoration owes less to Betty Crocker than to Josef Albers. Cupcake manufacture seems to occupy the midlife-crisis Plan Bs that used to be reserved for interior decoration or jewelry design. Eat them, arrange them prettily on a conference room table, mount them on the wall — it really makes no difference. The cupcakes in the display case at the Eagle Rock hamburger stand Oinkster, Andre Guerrero's shotgun marriage of fast-food culture and classic French technique, look like examples of the new breed: pretty, swirly, just lumpy enough to give a Gourmet cover a peppy summer look. It is easy to imagine a box of the carrot-cake cupcakes sitting uneaten on a Stickley sideboard until they eventually stale, or the sticky, snowy coconut cupcakes at a society lunch with precisely one bite taken out of each. But Guerrero is neither a corporate lawyer nor a party planner with a truck-tire-size Rolodex — he's a chef. So the fluffy peanut-butter-and-jelly cupcakes taste like peanut butter and jelly, and those dense, cream-cheese-frosted carrot cupcakes would probably also be the best carrot cake in town if they happened to compete in that category too.—Jonathan Gold
Angelenos are spoiled for choice when it comes to roast chicken, from the smoky Peruvian-style chickens at Lola's or Pollos a la Brasa to the garlicky Armenian birds at Marouch and Carousel, the soft, savory hens at Brentwood's Reddi-Chik to the oregano-kissed chicken at Papa Cristo's in the Byzantine-Latino district. Nowhere else that I know of can you duck into a place like Zankou and walk away with a fragrant rotisserie chicken in about the time, and for about the price, of a soul-killing meal at Burger King. Still, even among the feathered plenty, the chickens at Grill Masters stands a cluck or two above the rest: extravagantly seasoned fowl cooked on rotating spits, perfumed with smoke, slow-roasted and glistening with juice, basted in its own fat plus probably a dozen other things, soft enough to eat with a spoon. And the skin! Like a thin sheet of crackly caramel, salty and drippy and saturated with herbs, chewy but taut and crisp enough to give way under your teeth with a magnificent thwack. But find a tree to eat under — the hot, succulent bird does not travel well. Grill Masters bright red catering wagons fold out like Mr. Haney's truck at local farmers markets, including the Tuesday Manhattan Beach market, the Wednesday noon downtown market, the Thursday South Pasadena market and the Sunday market on Larchmont.—Jonathan Gold