Best Of :: Food & Drink
You may be forgiven for having missed the opening, one year ago, of Zia Valentina, a tiny granita bar in the Original Farmers Market. So many other food stalls crowd the venerable 80-year-old market that it's easy to overlook the small counter, even with its pretty vegan pastries and back wall, which churns out granita from cute nozzles. Go find it, ideally in the company of some undercaffeinated teenage girls. Because owner Naomi Kashi — who named the shop after her Sicilian great-aunt — has created a tiny paradise for those who love sweets and coffee but have certain dietary restrictions or preferences. Nearly everything is vegan and sweetened with stevia instead of sugar. This includes the shot of espresso, which is served not in a ceramic demitasse or even a properly recyclable cup but in perhaps the best vehicle for espresso we've ever seen: a tiny ice cream cone, which has first been hand-dipped in dark chocolate. Thus, after you swig your shot, you can happily crunch the cup itself, rather as you would the tiny cookie often served with an actual cup of espresso. The best form of cleanup possible. —Amy Scattergood
6333 W. Third St., Stall #530, Fairfax District, 90036. (323) 934-3660, ziavalentina.com.
Don't let Nancy Silverton's puffy-edged pies at Mozza sway you: The city's best wood-fired pizza may well be across town at Mother Dough in Los Feliz. At the least, the tiny brick storefront space along Hollywood Boulevard has more soul than perhaps any other pizza place in Los Angeles, thanks to Bez Compani, the Naples-trained, Iranian-born pizzaiolo who's been running Mother Dough with a quick wrist and quiet focus since 2011. There's little time to breeze through niceties when the sidewalk out front is packed with patient diners, the mozzarella di bufala is getting low and the oven's pulsing heat must be managed and maintained. Each night, Compani sweats to make sure that his pies arrive springy but with a crisp, slightly scorched crust that isn't overpowered by endless toppings. Don't bother making eye contact with the man to offer a silent nod of pure pizza bliss; he's too busy. -- Farley Elliott
4648 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz, 90027. (323) 644-2885, motherdoughpizza.com.
Every single day of the year, including holidays, you can find Mariscos Jalisco parked on the eastern stretch of Olympic Boulevard; thus every day of the year, especially holidays, you'll find folks from as far away as San Diego in line for the truck's near-legendary taco dorados de camaron. This would be a taco the size of a small clutch bag, stuffed until plump with a creamy mixture of shrimp and various secret ingredients, then deep-fried wholesale to a most satisfying crunch, with the charred edges being the most prized bites. Finished with thin slices of avocado and a bit of salsa, two or three of these, plus a bottle of Coke or Jarritos, inhaled while sitting on a nearby brick ledge alongside everyone else, is lunch. As these tacos have a way of inspiring cravings, this might be lunch tomorrow, too. And every day thereafter. —Tien Nguyen
3040 E. Olympic Blvd., Boyle Heights. (323) 528-6701. Additional location at 10th Street and Towne Avenue, dwntwn. (323) 309-1622.
No doubt the first place that comes to mind when you think of longtime L.A. chili dog stands is Pink's, the permanently crowded stand on La Brea. Perfectly understandable. But Art's Chili Dog Stand should come to mind almost as quickly. Opened by ex–New Yorker Art Elkind in the late 1940s, the tiny stand near the corner of Florence and Normandie was visited by food writers David Shaw and Ruth Reichl, who praised both the dogs and Art himself. Art died in 1990, but the chili dogs he named remain the same: casing-free, all-meat dogs (made specially for Art's by nearby Meadow Farms) that are loaded with chili and served on a steamed bun. The late, great Art believed in keeping it simple — a tradition that, thankfully, continues. —Jim Thurman
1410 W. Florence Ave., Manchester Square, 90047. (323) 750-1313.
What do we want from brunch? We don't want to wait on the sidewalk for a table forever. Rather, we want comfort food that's slightly more complex or elevated than what we'd make for ourselves at home. We want something that might tame a hangover — maybe served with something that might give us a brand new hangover. We also want something that's friendly, laid-back, relaxed and convivial. We get all of these things from Cooks County, the Beverly Boulevard restaurant from chefs Daniel Mattern and Roxana Jullapat, which excels in many things but brunch above all. Sip a sweet and tart rhubarb prosecco while chomping on fried eggs with chickpeas and harissa, served with yogurt and grilled olive bread. Or go the bagel route — they're chewy, made in-house and served with a generous heaping of cedar-smoked trout, capers and red onion. We've yet to have a dud on this menu. Plus, the wait is never too long. —Besha Rodell
8009 Beverly Blvd., Beverly Grove. (323) 653-8009, cookscountyrestaurant.com.
For years, Robert Earl has been mesquite-smoking his meats in a hand-welded, four-barrel cooker hitched to the back of a miniature ice cream truck, which doubles as a catering van. On the back, a painted warning says, "BBQ so good make you slap mama." Maybe so, when you're talking about Earl's pork ribs and beef brisket so tender it can't even hold its sliced shape. The homemade cooker spends most of its time heating the daily offerings in the parking lot behind Earl's year-old namesake restaurant in North Long Beach, Robert Earl's BBQ, where ribs, pulled pork and brisket have been added to the long list of sinful specialties and his wife's vegetarian sides (you'd swear there was bacon grease in the greens) come included with most meals. So skip the lines at Bludso's and, in addition to competition-worthy, Texas-style BBQ, you'll be rewarded with the option of wolfing down one of Robert Earl Jr.'s signature "golden nugget" desserts: a scoop of banana pudding atop a pan-fried piece of cornbread. —Sarah Bennett
703 E. Artesia Blvd., Long Beach, 90805. (562) 726-1116, facebook.com/R.E.bbq.
You can order many glorious things at a good Hunan restaurant, but the sine qua non is doubtless the fish head. This is the signature Hunan dish, and it's big and shareable and insanely tasty. It's also both an Instagram favorite and an enjoyable way to unsettle any less-than-adventurous members of your dinner party. What you get is a fish head in a bowl — and what a fish head it is. At Hunan Mao, a bustling restaurant in yet another food-intensive strip mall in the San Gabriel Valley, the fish head will be presented to you as the gift that it is, in a very large and pretty bowl, covered with a collage of diced chiles, intensely fragrant with sesame oil and copious bits of peppermint. You'll need to deconstruct your fish head: Just stack the bits of bone on a plate and keep working. The bowl of rice and repeating pots of tea should tame the heat of the chiles, which isn't really fire as much as the happy Novocaine of Sichuan cooking. If you order the house-smoked ham, which you absolutely should, you can take a break from fish work. And even if you manage to consume the whole fish (eyeballs included, please), be sure to take the last ladlefuls of broth home. It makes a terrific sauce for noodles. —Amy Scattergood
8728 Valley Blvd., #101, Rosemead, 91770. (626) 280-0588, no website.
There are certain restaurants in L.A. that seem as if they were lifted from their country of origin and casually planted in a random Southern California suburb. Yoma Myanmar is one of them, as the restaurant could as soon be a neighborhood spot in Yangon as in Monterey Park. This means that the space is extremely simple — a few small tables in a small room with a low ceiling — but that seems appropriate when sampling Burmese curries rarely found outside of the streets of Southeast Asia. We're quite happy to eat in any setting where the tea-leaf salad is as pungent and garlicky as this one is, and where there are enough interesting noodle dishes that it's worth inventing excuses to go out to lunch. There are a few other excellent Burmese options in L.A. right now — including Daw Yee Myanmar around the corner — but Yoma's consistently stellar food and comprehensive menu make it our favorite. —James Gordon
713 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, 91755; (626) 280-8655, no website.
Forget about paella and risotto. There's a much more exciting rice dish at Bangla Bazar & Restaurant on West Third Street in the strip known as Little Bangladesh. It's goat biryani, spicy rice studded with gamey-tasting, bony pieces of goat. The rice is like a spice market on a plate, studded with the heady aromatics you find in Indian-Bangladeshi food: whole cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and big, black cardamom pods. Spicy chile, too. And dribbles of yellow splotching the rice like sunshine. This in-your-face food commands attention. To do it justice, you should eat with your hands — right hand only, please — like the Bangladeshis around you, because the tactile sensation is as important to the flavor as the spices. All you need to turn this into a perfect meal is a bracing cup of chai, which the restaurant provides, and a hand rinse when you're done. —Barbara Hansen
4205½ W. Third St., Koreatown, 90020. (213) 380-4070, facebook.com/pages/Bangla-Bazar-Restaurant.
While fish and chips are served at many places around Los Angeles, there hasn't been a true British-style chip shop until the 2012 opening of Hot Red Bus in downtown Alhambra. Billing itself as L.A.'s first British Indian chip shop, it's run by an expat Brit of Indian descent who brought the flavors of England to his menu. You can choose either swai or the traditional cod for your fish, which is dipped in a secret-recipe batter, fried and served atop perfectly fried Kennebec chips. Since the recent acquisition of a liquor license, you also can swig British beers with your meal. Assorted Brit pop is also available. No, not Blur or Oasis but rather ginger beer or currant-flavored Vimto. —Jim Thurman
31 E. Main St., Alhambra, 91801. (626) 576-2877, hotredbus.com.
Alhambra city planners probably should think about installing a trolley route along the western section of Valley Boulevard, just for all the people waiting in restaurant lines. First, last summer, came the justly lauded Chengdu Taste, possibly the best Sichuan restaurant to open in the San Gabriel Valley in years — and certainly its most popular. (Now there's even a second location, also on Valley. Of course there is.) In August, Szechuan Impression opened and immediately started drawing similar lines, for similar reasons: Like Chengdu, it's a moderately upscale restaurant, with excellent iterations of Sichuan home-style food, executed with beauty and polish. The dishes may not be as dangerously spicy as at other Sichuan restaurants — the chef, who hails from a five-star restaurant in Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province, seems to appreciate restraint — but you'll get enough spice to keep you happy, even as you're able to taste the nuances of the cooking. There are endearingly homey dishes, including one of blanched potatoes, which are like un-fried french fries; an instantly addictive dish of sliced chicken sauced with chiles and peanuts; and a beautiful communal bowl of beef and vegetable soup, the lotus root floating like flowers. Arrive hungry and patient, because the lines won't be abating anytime soon. —Amy Scattergood
1900 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, 91803. (626) 283-4622, no website.
Michael Cimarusti's sprawling seafood restaurant Connie & Ted's sates all kinds of oceanic cravings: Lobster rolls, chowders, steamers and beautifully grilled fish all hit exactly the right pleasure and nostalgia receptors in our seafood-loving brains. But the reason we most often find ourselves stopping by the huge swoosh of a building in West Hollywood is to sit at the bar, catch a game on the televisions behind it and indulge in Connie & Ted's amazing selection of raw oysters. The selection rotates daily but always includes plenty of choices from both the West and East Coast. It's not uncommon to find as many as 20 varieties to choose from, and each oyster is shucked and served with expert care. Apart from all that, Connie & Ted's is high-energy and incredibly well-run, making it an exceedingly fun place to sit and slurp. —Besha Rodell
8171 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. (323) 848-2722, connieandteds.com.