Best Of :: Food & Drink
Suburban childhood turned me into a committed urban dweller as an adult. But creeping gentrification has made metropolitan centers prohibitively expensive for all but the filthy rich. I’ve watched in dismay as the dismantling of rent control transformed my hometown for the past 18 years from the People’s Republic of Santa Monica to the Temporary Digs for Entertainment Lawyers Building Their Houses in the Palisades. Nevertheless, those of us who still pay reasonable rents get to hang in there and keep things from getting too tony. And we can walk everywhere to do that, or at a stretch use the city’s excellent Big Blue Bus system. There’s almost nothing I can’t do on foot, from walking my daughter to and from school to getting my eyes tested and her teeth braced, my car fixed and tires replaced, my passport renewed, my body massaged when I’m flush, my groceries bought fresh and local or exotically ethnic, my books borrowed from two excellent public libraries, my soul renewed by a walk on the beach, or my child’s renewed by a therapeutic scream on the rides at the pier.
For entertainment, the lovely, drafty old NuWilshire movie theater may have closed (taking with it a fine little shoe repair joint, and being replaced thus far by nothing but garbage and a chain-link fence), but my daughter and I can still walk to the Aero on Montana Avenue — one of the few remaining affordable things on that posher-than-thou street, where only screenwriters can shop without being forced into bankruptcy. The Aero, among other things, has become an excellent revival house for children’s movies courtesy of the American Cinematheque.
Speaking of children’s movies, now that Blockbuster doesn’t stock anything released more than five minutes ago, we stop in at Second Spin, where they buy and sell a pretty good array of used DVDs and CDs, or we bus it down to Vidiots on Pico and Fourth, where you can find every movie ever made. But our favorite thing is to go in search of food, especially breakfast — and if there’s one thing there’s no shortage of around here, on or off the Third Street Promenade, it’s places to eat — and then work off the calories in shoe-leather. Enjoy!
Bread and Porridge
Cute, bordering on cutesy, red decor. All the usual breakfast stuff is good, especially the wide range of terrific omelets, my favorite being the Swiss chard, which comes with cheddar cheese, chicken sausage and mushrooms, and a side of red potatoes. My child wolfs down the blueberry pancakes, largely because the chocolate chip pancakes are verboten by her meanie of a mother. The catch is that if you come late, you’ll be waiting forever unless you make a same-day reservation. We had a perfectly good dinner there, too, with excellent service, since ours was one of two tables filled on a Monday night.
2315 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 453-4941.
Le Pain Quotidien
A chain, but a really good chain with the inspired idea of one long communal table down the center for sociable types. If you’re more private, stand-alone tables hug the sides. Atmosphere is festive, waiters are central casting. Menus come wedged into loaves of really excellent artisan breads; the pastries will send your lipids soaring. If you’re more brunchy than breakfast-ish, they serve winsome little tartines on individual boards, with curried chicken or avocado or tuna to die for.
316 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 393-6800.
I could live without the noise level at this gigantic New York–style deli, but my daughter loves it for that very reason, and for the stuffed croissant. The fish and chips is hardly up to British grease standards but not a bad facsimile.
1457 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 451-0616.
Celebs in their sweats show up early to debate the Democratic ticket at this upmarket coffee house on Montana Avenue. It has “exclusive” writ large on the small number of wooden tables, but they do a lovely, if pricey, cappuccino with a leaf pattern, and tucked behind the pastries, a brown baguette with walnuts and raisins.
925 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 394-2222.
At the other extreme, our favorite greasy spoon is Callahan’s, which is nominally Irish, with green walls in need of a paint job, but run by a Latino family so warm and friendly, I can send my child ahead alone to nab a table and be certain they’ll watch her. It’s not for food snobs or dieters, that’s for sure, but you can get a standard two eggs plus all the fixings for next to nothing, and they ring up the check on an old-style manual cash register that makes me swoon.
1213 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 394-6210.
If, like me, you balk at the sky-high prices of the far-from-superior produce (not to mention the overly buffed, vitamin-rich bodies prodding and poking it) at Whole Foods, then sling your hemp bag over your shoulder and walk, bike or bus it to one of SM’s farmers markets. Wednesday and Saturday mornings you can find top local chefs cruising the stalls with heaped carts of eggplant, grapes, fennel and even beef at the higher-end outdoor market on the Promenade (though prices have taken a big leap), or take the new little crosstown Blue Bus to the Saturday Pico farmers market, on the corner of Pico and Cloverfield, where the equally fresh, but cheaper, produce has a more Latino flavor. A well-kept secret, unless you’re from Eastern Europe, are the Russians selling cheap, fresh fruit and veggies out of trucks on Third Street just above Wilshire some weekdays.
Visit the backroom of this market, where the fruit and vegetables are unrefrigerated but fresh and inexpensive, and when you’re done there, take a pass around the rest of the store, whose clientele is mostly Iranian. Which means lovely smells and terrific breads, huge bags of rice and beans and other dry goods, loose feta, dried fruits and herbs, and pickled-just-about-everything. Time was when I’d take a baklava over to a matinee at the NuWilshire. This whole stretch of Wilshire Boulevard is going yup at a rapid clip, so pray the titans of mammon don’t buy out the baklava, too.
1417 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 393-6719.
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
Despite the downtown sushi restaurant that has reimagined the cheesesteak as an egg roll stuffing, and the close approximations of cheesesteaks assembled at both Vietnamese banh mi parlors and a Jewish delicatessen in the deep Valley, the basic form of the Philadelphia cheesesteak is well-settled. There will be a light, chewy Italian roll, almost certainly imported from the Amoroso bakery in Philadelphia itself; there will be onions; and there will be thin, griddled shavings of the cheapest imaginable beef. There will be a choice of available cheeses, including white American, hot Cheez Whiz and sharp provolone, although it will have melted completely into the meat before you have the chance to take a bite. It is not strictly necessary for a cheesesteak emporium to have birch beer, Tastykakes or a poster of the 1980 Phillies, but it is never a bad thing — extra points for an autographed photo of Tug McGraw. South Street and the Philly's Best chain both serve pretty decent cheesesteaks. Fredo's, a specialist in Pasadena, made exemplary cheesesteaks until the proprietor left in August. (They're still very good.) Philly West, an Eagles-centric dive bar near Westwood, may chop their meat a little too finely, but they've mastered the proper ratio of onions to steak, and of chomp to goo. But for the love of God, ask them to hold the tomato sauce.—Jonathan Gold
It is almost impossible to have a civil discussion about pizza in this city of immigrants, because there may be no foodstuff so intimately linked to one's sense of identity. People who grew up in New York usually plump for Vito's or Mulberry Street, where it is automatically assumed that the best pizza in the world is found only in the five boroughs, and people who have spent time in Naples argue for the strictly traditional Antica Pizzeria in Marina del Rey. Argentines are in favor of the onion-intensive fugazetta served at Damiano's on Fairfax; newly arrived Koreans enjoy the deeply weird pizza served at Mr. Pizza in Koreatown. For decades, I have maintained that the eggplant and homemade sausage pizza at Casa Bianca, a thin-crusted Chicago-bar-style pizza whose garlicky snap I actually missed the years I lived in Brooklyn, was the best pizza in town, although I admit that the wait on weekend nights tends toward the unreal. Among the newcomers, Terroni and the Monterey Park pizza dive Bollini are wood-burning demons of crust. But in the wood oven at Pizzeria Mozza, Nancy Silverton has more or less reinvented the very idea of pizza, airy and burnt and risen around the rim, thin and crisp in the center, neither bready in the traditional Neapolitan manner nor wispy the way you find them in the best places in Tuscany. The crust is so good, in fact, that it may be at its best dressed with nothing more than a drizzle of good olive oil and a few grains of sea salt — and it's not sad to eat topped with burrata and vivid squash blossoms, taleggio and housemade sausage, lardo and rosemary or puréed anchovies and fried egg. (The mandatory caveat applies here: Silverton is a family friend.) This isn't your mama's pizza, and it's not the pizza you used to eat back in Jersey, and that, perhaps, is the point.—Jonathan Gold
Leo Bulgarini is the wrong guy to mouth off to the day after his beloved AS Roma squad drops a game to Genoa or Inter Milan, and I suspect he cheered the bankruptcy of AIG as cosmic revenge for its sponsorship of the hated Manchester U. His gelati are labeled only in Italian, and he is not above correcting an 8-year-old on her faulty pronunciation of pistacchio or stracciatella. His standards are so famously strict that he's been known to pull his delicious sorbetti from the menus of restaurants and the freezer cases of retailers that in one way or another failed to come up to his standards. A big photograph on the wall of his Altadena shop shows him making an obscene Italian gesture to a giant Sicilian ice cream plant. But it cannot be denied: Bulgarini is an artist, a master of smooth textures, an ace at coaxing the maximum flavor from a rare-breed plum or a ripe peach, an artisanal dark chocolate or an especially fragrant Sicilian pistachio he himself smuggles from Italy. When the evenings are warm, he screens Italian movies on Saturdays on the patio outside his shop. And he probably pulls the best espresso shot in the San Gabriel Valley, when he's in the mood, a thick, syrupy thimbleful made with an antique Italian machine. If you don't believe me, ask him yourself.—Jonathan Gold
I often find myself drawn to the peppery fried chicken at Bertha's, a soul-food café not far from Watts, and the crackly skinned fried chicken with fermented tofu at Mission 261 may be the best dish in that formidable Cantonese restaurant. The Buffalo-style fried wings at Ye Rustic Inn and the Japanese-style fried wings at FuRaiBo are exemplary. But it has become evident in the last year that Korean fried chicken really is an evolutionary leap forward — marinated in a cabinet full of spices, saturated with garlic, double-fried to a shattering, thin-skinned snap dramatic enough to wake a sleeping baby in an adjoining room. It is not accidental that fried-chicken parlors have been opening in Koreatown almost as ferociously as frozen-yogurt stands. Kyochon, the first of the Korean chicken joints, definitely has some problems. The chicken is cooked to order, so even a simple to-go box can take an eternity to prepare, and the only real appetizer is marinated cubes of daikon, a conceit that is amusing for about five minutes. Somebody really needs to learn how to set the carbonation controls on the soda machine. Beer would be nice. But then the chicken comes out, hacked into random pieces, all garlic and juice, heat and crunch, and finishing every last femur and scrap of rib meat becomes the most important thing in the world. Bonchon, Chicken Day and the oddly named BBQ all serve good Korean fried chicken, but it's the Kyochon birds that you dream about the next day.—Jonathan Gold
It isn't that the food in Disneyland sucks — it does — but who wants to waste precious ride time waiting in food lines that move slower than Dumbo's (the slowest-loading attraction in the Magic Kingdom)? As a pal once said, "If you go to the snack bar in Tomorrowland, you won't end up getting your food until tomorrow." The best bet for a filling lunch is also among the quickest — the legendary corn dog from the Little Red Wagon at the end of Main Street. Legendary as in huge, this bad boy will take you halfway around the Matterhorn to eat. It's not the prettiest corn dog you'll ever have, but after it's been hand-dipped in thick cornmeal batter and deep-fried to a funny-looking off-kilter shape, you'll know why Disneyland devotees make a beeline for the Little Red Wagon. You can also find it at the Corn Dog Castle in California Adventure. And don't forget the amazing dill pickle, which they will fish out of a barrel for you at the Market House on Main Street. Cold, vinegary and snappy as all get-out.—Libby Molyneaux
Mastro, Arnie Morton's, Wolfgang's, BLT Steak, Ruth's Chris, the Palm — the city is awash in expense-account steak, empurpled slabs of rare, prime beef seared on 1,000-degree grills, and ideally accompanied by a bottle of California cabernet that costs as much as your first car. For years, we asserted that the best steak in town was at Michael's in Santa Monica, because Michael McCarty bought the best beef, dry-aged it for long enough to bring out the profound sourness in the meat, and served it with wispy French fries cooked in pure lard. We still admire that steak. But at Cut, Wolfgang Puck's gleaming-white temple of steakhouse cuisine in the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel, a beef man pads silently around the room with his cuts of certified Japanese wagyu ribeye and filet swaddled in ninja-black cloth — when he displays them at table, he does so with the reverence of an art dealer revealing an undiscovered Cranach. And if your financial consultants should permit you to order this ribeye, you will discover a miracle unduplicated in the world of meat, richness upon richness, all possible permutations of smoke and char and animal dancing across your consciousness like sunlight rippling on a pond. At $160 or so, it will probably be the most expensive meat you have ever eaten ... but the sensations are so intense that one small steak easily satiates four. Save room for the warm veal-tongue salad and Lee Hefter's roasted bone marrow flan.—Jonathan Gold