When trying to find the best of something, you need to set a standard -- and that can be pretty difficult when comparing meatballs to meatballs. First of all, a meatball can be made from a variety of ground meats which always seems to prove pork is tastier than chicken. Then the medium (sauced, salad, sandwich, soup, etc.) in which it's served varies widely. Plus there's the added twist that most cultures have their own version.
For our survey, we attempted to try a wide variety, although there are no vegetarian or turkey options on our list. The top contenders all met the basic criteria: tasting really good. Basic, but true. There are issues of density (lighter is better), sauce, accompaniments and price point as well. There's also a bit of an ethics controversy, which you'll have to read on to learn more about. What we found were some incredibly diverse and eclectic meatballs. Turn the page for our 10 top picks.
It's not a meatball sandwich, it's meatball parmesan. What's that? According to anyone from the East Coast, it's a very specific thing and at Sorrento's they do it right. The enormous creation starts with a mountain of mini-meatballs that have been piled into a toothsome foot-long Italian sandwich loaf that's melded together with a thin drizzle of red sauce and thick slices of cheese. The beef meatballs are made in-house, seasoned with oregano and are blissfully loose and astonishingly tender. The sandwich comes in two sizes -- 6" or 12" -- and is less than $7. Could it use a bit more sauce and some salt? Yes, but you can work that out with them. Carry-out only. 5518 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 391-7654.
9. Bӓco Mercat:
Bӓco Mercat is the very chic home of the bӓco: those excellent hybridized flatbread sandwiches. The unorthodox meatball version takes on a Southern Italian flavor profile with the inclusion of fat raisins and whole pine nuts, adding texture to an otherwise uniform ball. It's served with strong cheese, fresh tomato sauce, tartly dressed greens and a pile of green onions. While it is supposed to be a sandwich, we really do think it is more of a knife-and-fork affair. 408 S. Main St., Los Angeles; (213) 687-8808.
The menu at Street captured our attention because it has an entire section of meatballs: "Meatballs + Fritters" includes Swedish, Thai, a vegetarian option and an exemplary Syrian lamb dish that packs a wallop. The small plate comes with sticky and somewhat tangy molasses, feta, and a scattering of dates that add sweetness to the pungent, garlicky lamb. As with everything at Susan Feniger's restaurant, it's meant to be shared, but we admit we ate it all ourselves. 742 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 203-0500.
Turn the page for picks 7 through 5...
7. Bay Cities:
If you're at this Santa Monica shop and for some reason not ordering The Godmother, we urge you to try Bay Cities' hot meatball sandwich with a few thick slices of melted Provolone. The bare-bones, billiard ball-sized, tightly packed meatballs are flecked with fennel seeds, dipped in tomato sauce and piled into the golden crusted house-baked bread. It's an over-the-top, messy affair that tells the world that you aren't afraid of a really rich, meaty meal. 1517 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 395-8279.
6. Izakaya Sasaya:
Tender tsukune chicken meatballs can be tricky to pull off, but Sasaya does it right. The coarsely minced dark and light meat chicken balls are meticulously formed into orbs that are delicately seasoned with garlic and ginger. The three-per-order balls are skewered and grilled, then lightly glazed. At less than $3 each -- and served during happy hour with $0.99 beer -- these are by far the best deal on our list. 11613 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 477-4404.
5. Pizzeria Mozza:
We imagine these are the meatballs chefs are served in heaven as a reward for their hard work on earth. Pork, pancetta and veal are lightly bound with breadcrumbs and seasoned with garlic and red pepper flakes before being dredged in flour and seared. They're then simmered in Nancy Silverton's glorious passata de pomodoro sauce and served under a snow-drift of Parmigiano-Reggiano. A few slices of bread and a spoon come as well, because you don't want to miss a drop. So how come this isn't number one? No matter how much we ranted and raved, most of the people we talked to about it said they don't eat veal and would never order it. Too bad really, since we trust Mozza only sources humanely raised meat -- and thus is #5. 6602 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 297-0100.
Keep reading for number 4 on ...
4. Tila's Kitchen:
When you pull up a chair and order albondigas in Tila's homey kitchen, you're rewarded with an enormous bowl -- meant to serve four -- of flawlessly tender pork and carrot flecked meatballs that are defiantly crowding out the gently stewed vegetables they're paired with. Along with the requisite rice, a dish of lemon and chiles is brought to the table too, letting you tart and heat it up as you wish. 3909 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 264-5513.
The food at Gjelina is presented in a way that begs a camera. In the case of the astonishingly flavorful and perfectly uniform pork meatballs that are served in a complex tomato sauce, don't be blinded by their beauty for too long -- just bite in. They're served with grilled bread perched atop a rectangular cast iron dish that keeps them sizzling long after they're placed on the table. They're also available from the Gjelina Take-Away as a sandwich. 1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 450-1429.
2. Trung Nguyen:
There are not enough words available for this Vietnamese xíu mại meatball. It's absolutely, amazingly, fantastically delicious. It's made from perfectly salted, delicate ground pork that is then loosely formed into a ball -- with a bit of rice to bind the mixture and large pieces of chopped onion. Served in a petite bowl with a huge side dish of Chinese doughnuts meant to be dipped in the star-anise scented broth. (Food nerd fact: Chinese donuts are also known as "deep fried devils." We can only speculate that is a reference to their addictiveness.) 3119 San Gabriel Blvd., Rosemead; (626) 307-5998.
And for our top pick...
Sotto's meatballs are without a doubt, the best of the best in L.A. Served on top of minimally dressed bitter greens with a light smattering of sieved egg, everything on the plate helps balance the hearty richness of the trio of bronzed and grilled meatballs. They're tender, juicy and haunting like no others. But no matter what else is on the plate, it is those meatballs that are the ultimate focus; nothing can take away from the simple yet complex flavors of meat and fire done to perfection. 9575 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles; (310) 277-0210.
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In our attempt to try every meatball in town (an impossible task), we obviously ate more than these ten. The runners-up: Momed, Huckleberry, Original Rinaldi's, Golden Road and Robata Jinya. Oh, and IKEA, because damn if they don't serve thousands of Swedish meatballs to hungry, grateful families every day. Lastly, why is Chego not on this list? Because they recently stopped serving their excellent 3PM Meatballs. (Sign a petition here ____.)
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