15 Instantly Recognizable Smells That Let You Know You're in L.A.
The Pacific Ocean on a sunny day — smell that breeze.
Photo by Sarah Fenske
It's hard to argue that any one smell can be truly representative of Los Angeles. This city's simply too sprawling; we Angelenos and our tastebuds, far too diverse. But any number of aromas still have a way of instantly transporting us to various parts of the city — and that means each one of these smells, in its own way, means "home."
Good, bad, and even sometimes downright rancid, here are the 15 smells that instantly let us know we're in L.A. Take a deep breath and inhale your city in all its complicated glory.
15. The Ocean
There’s a reason Southern California’s pro fighters and long-distance runners head to the mountains to train. It’s to get away from sea level and challenge their bodies to thrive without the luxury of our oxygen-rich beach air. In other words, the Pacific sustains us. A breath of thick, cool, kelp-infused sea mist that meanders inland after a hot day is magically life-affirming. One of our favorite local street names celebrates the vibe: Saltair Avenue in West Los Angeles. —Dennis Romero
It’s a good thing that the northbound 405 usually opens up after you’ve crossed the Sepulveda Pass — because soon after you cross into Van Nuys, you hit the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. Pressed right up against the freeway near Roscoe Boulevard, the place pumps out Budweiser on an industrial scale, producing a foul smell that can best be compared to the evaporating urine of someone who’s eaten too much asparagus. With some luck, the freeway will be clear enough to ram your accelerator straight down to the floorboard. You can explain away any speeding tickets by telling the officer that you couldn’t help it; your body was instinctively kicking into survival mode. (You can use the same excuse near the Miller/Coors factory in Irwindale near the 210/605 junction.) —Chris Walker
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You'll smell it most famously on the Venice Boardwalk, as staffers in green T-shirts try to lure you into clinics for a brief — and we mean brief — medical exam before prescribing bud for your anxiety, your headache, your cancer, whatever. But with pot all but legal in L.A. these days, really, you might smell it anywhere, its skunky, heady vibes drifting from your neighbor's apartment or the BMW you pass on your commute home. Who lights up in L.A. in 2014? The better question is who doesn't. That aroma is everywhere. —Sarah Fenske
12. Coffee Roasters
As the downtown arts district continues to grow, so too does its sweet aroma. The nutty, rich caramel smell that wafts along Mateo Street near the L.A. River can be traced to the area’s glut of coffee shops, including Daily Dose Café, Blacktop Coffee and Urth Café, and roasters like the Portland-based Stumptown and the Oakland-born Blue Bottle, which recently took over L.A.’s own Handsome Coffee Roasters. Competing with the stench of factories and freight trains, the floral, toasted scent of heavy-bodied beans dominates the industrial neighborhood, pumping its streets with the harvests of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Ethiopia and Kenya. With Verve Coffee Roasters set to open in the fashion district any day now, DTLA residents will have no other choice but to wake up and smell the locally roasted coffee. —Jennifer Swann
11. The Smell
It’s easy to assume that DIY punk venue The Smell was named for the not-so-pleasant bodily odors emanating from its Skid Row-adjacent alleyway. The truth is, the all-ages club was named long before it moved into the downtown neighborhood you can smell even before you step foot on its tent-covered, piss-splattered sidewalks. The owners of The Smell reportedly chose its name as a cheeky dig on next-door coffee shop Aroma back when the venue was founded in North Hollywood in ’98. But in the last decade, The Smell has taken on an idiosyncratic smell entirely its own, thanks to the masses of sweaty, hormonal punk kids who make out and smoke cigarettes in its alley — and the drifters who call that alley home. —Jennifer Swann
Turn the page for more smells, including one peculiar to Los Feliz.
As soon as you drift towards the Los Feliz Boulevard exit off the 5, the aroma begins to fill your car. You can't see quite where it's coming from, but as you drive deeper into that neck of the woods, it only strengthens. Your nostrils flare in slight disgust at the pungent, somewhat cantankerous odor, but there's a hint of sweetness to it. The stench comes from your pals — your friendly neighbors — the skunks. They greet you stinkily, yet warmly, when you come home at night, casting a slight foulness on the dewy night that in its familiarity feels somehow welcoming. The scent may not be pleasant, but the routine is. If the fear of getting sprayed weren't so great, the temptation to pat the little darlings on the head might win out. —Ali Trachta
Once you’ve had handmade corn tortillas, those cardboard coasters from the grocery store just won’t do. We’re lucky to have the scent of toasting sweet corn masa here. It’s a constant reminder to eat fresh. And, for some of us, it’s a throwback to the comfort food of our childhood. It’s also a metaphor for life in Los Angeles, a blank slate just waiting for you to make something tasty out of it. —Dennis Romero
8. Surf Shop
If there’s just one smell of SoCal summer, it’s the aroma of a surf shop. We’re not talking about the slightly petroleum stank of wetsuits or the salty skin of surfers fresh from a session. We’re talking about the tropical sweetness of surf wax, often represent??ed by those island flavors, coconut and pineapple. Old-school sunscreen also contributes to the vibe, but the real source of this bouquet is that rack of used surfboards slathered with archeological layers of Sex Wax. Inhale, and school’s out forever. —Dennis Romero
7. The Rain
Petrichor is Greek for the distinctive scent after a long-overdue rain. People feel uplifted by the earthy smell wafting from the newly wet streets, describing it as smelling "fresh" or even like "happy worms." Aussie researchers say oils from plants get trapped in porous surfaces during dry periods, then are released when the heavens open. In L.A., to fill your lungs with this fragrance, head to Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area right after it rains. Stroll along Burbank Boulevard, where the scent from fallen eucalyptus leaves mingles with petrichor. It's a parfum you could peddle in Paris. Now if only we could get a little more of it.—Jill Stewart
Korean barbecue at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. Just try to get the scent out of your clothes.
Photo by Anne Fishbein
6. Korean BBQ
In the dense, urban grid that runs north and south between the 101 and the 10 freeways, an unmistakable aroma gets trapped in the car-lined, metered streets that run east and west between MacArthur Park and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s the smell of hundreds of barbecue grills, each one fired up with either gas or charcoal on the individual dining tables of all-you-can-eat Korean restaurants in L.A.’s Koreatown. The streets are filled with clouds of smoke that waft aromas of bulgogi and galbi: beef sirloin and short ribs marinated in garlic, ginger and sesame oil. And because many Korean kitchens are open 24 hours a day, the smell is unavoidable — a charred fragrance puffed incessantly in every direction. —Jennifer Swann
Want to find out which L.A. neighborhoods are getting an upgrade? Sometimes it's best to stop looking at Trulia and start paying attention to your nose. On Skid Row, the scent of urine fades to the wheatgrass shots of Sustain Juicery. Abbott Kinney, which was no one's shopping district two decades ago, now has a tester bottle of mandarin rind, rosemary leaf and Atlas cedar hand balm stationed outside the beauty products emporium Aesop. If you go to for a walk and start smelling single-origin coffee beans brewing, Yorkshire terriers marking the sidewalks or ecoconscious jute yoga mats wicking off sweat, it may be time to flip your house. —Zachary Pincus-Roth
It seems ghastly to enjoy the scent of wildfire (particularly from a human property damage and burnt critter perspective), but beauty and horror do sometimes go hand in hand. Southern California generally isn’t a fireplace sort of town, but when a wildfire is raging, depending on the prevailing wind, it can smell positively cozy outside—smoky, toasty, a bit pungent with the essential oils of whatever tree species (oak, pine, cypress, mesquite) happens to be smoldering. Our wildfires smell like a delicious late summer barbecue, which in point of fact, they are. —Gendy Alimurung
It’s the smell that launched a lawsuit and spawned a worldwide panic. Sriracha, the hometown hot sauce born and bottled in the San Gabriel Valley, is one of Southern California’s most offensive smells — and beloved tastes. Better known as Rooster Sauce after the mascot on its instantly recognizable bottle, Sriracha is the thick spicy paste found on dinner tables from here to Thailand. But Sriracha’s pop cultural significance (and now infamous chili stench) scorched to new heights when the City of Irwindale sued Sriracha’s company for simply being too smelly. A judge partially shut down the Irwindale factory after residents complained that the torturous stench of hot peppers and distilled vinegar watered their eyes and burned their throats. The lawsuit was eventually dropped and the legendary rooster sauce lives on, forever stinking up the SGV for the sake of chili lovers everywhere. —Jennifer Swann
2. Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dogs
Every concert in Los Angeles has exactly the same smell. Sometimes it doesn’t hit you until after the band plays its encore and the dance floor empties out, but often it’s the thing you anticipate the most: the bacon-wrapped hot dogs served on sizzling metal trays on portable carts outside the venue. The fatty fragrance of juicy beef dressed in salty pork is almost as overwhelming as the scent of its toppings: grilled onions and roasted jalapenos. Bacon-wrapped hot dog vendors crowd the sidewalks wherever music is heard and booze is guzzled, from Hollywood’s Fonda Theatre to Koreatown’s Wiltern to University Park’s Shrine Auditorium. Bars and clubs close notoriously early in L.A., but the smell of a bacon wrapped hot dog is always the last call during a wild night well spent. —Jennifer Swann
And the No. 1 smell that will always remind us of L.A.?
You're out walking the dog at night, or strolling back to your car after dinner, and suddenly there it is: the heady, intensely fragrant smell of jasmine. There are enough varieties of this flowering vine that it's nearly a year-round perfume in Los Angeles, but it's most prevalent on those late spring/early summer evenings, when the warmth of the day has heated the blossoms and the cool of the night coaxes their sweet scent out into the air for you to inhale. It's not a pervasive or overpowering smell — just enough to give you that whiff of pleasure as you pass by. So slow down, breathe deep and enjoy. —Lisa Horowitz
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