Thanks to the resurgence of traditional American cooking and so-called comfort food in the last decade or so, red velvet cakes have grown, and grown a lot, in popularity. It's easy to see why: They're gorgeous, delicious and just a little weird. Considered by many an example of traditional Southern baking, and traced by others to New York's famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the cake is most likely the product of Depression-era cookery and then World War 2, when cocoa was rationed — and red food coloring wasn't.
Regardless of the particulars of its distinctly American origins, red velvet is not a chocolate cake but a buttermilk cake, with a surprisingly subtle flavor. There's a little cocoa, lots of buttermilk and a gargantuan amount of red food coloring. Which makes many purists cringe but also makes the cake a fabulous showstopper, particularly during the holidays. Halloween, say. The blood-red crumb and even more scarlet cake batter is fun to play with — and you can always use the rest of the food coloring for fake blood.
Because of this, and because there are some fantastic iterations of red velvet cake (and cupcakes!) around town, we thought we'd sort them out for you. Here are our 10 favorites.
10. Lark Cake Shop
Opened in the summer of 2007 along the Silver Lake stretch of Sunset Boulevard, the interior of the little shop itself is as adorable as the many cakes and cupcakes for sale there. It looks like a little sitting-room cafe, and you can have a cup of Intelligentsia and work on the free Wi-Fi while you eat your exceedingly pretty cupcake. Lark makes both red velvet cupcakes and equally pretty little cakes (pre-order the cakes just to be safe), classic versions of the cake with a thick topping of cream cheese frosting. In a perfect world, first eat dinner at Night + Market Song, the pink restaurant across the street, and then swing by Lark for dessert (it's open until 8 p.m.) 3337 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake; 323-667-2968.
9. Big Man Bakes
You probably know the story about this place, and if you don't, you should. Big Man launched in 2009, after the "big man" in question, a very tall med student, started baking a lot to relieve the stress of medicine. The bakery now helps the rest of us relieve stress, in the form of many, many excellent cupcakes. The red velvet cupcakes come in normal and tiny sizes, the latter being insanely cute and available in packs. Eat enough of them and you'll totally forget what was stressing you out in the first place. 413 S. Main St., dwntwn.; 213-617-9100.
8. Village Bakery and Cafe
Since Barbara Monderine opened her bakery and cafe in 2009, the place has become a mecca for Atwater Village residents, a local hangout, a great breakfast and lunch spot, and a source of outstanding breads and pastries. Monderine's Halloween cookies are legendary, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that her red velvet cupcakes are outstanding, too. Blood-red, topped with a swirl of traditional cream cheese frosting and a scattering of sprinkles, these are beautiful, utterly classic versions of the little cakes. 3119 Los Feliz Blvd., Atwater Village; 323-662-8600.
7. Duff's Cakemix
The great thing about Duff Goldman's Melrose Avenue shop is that not only can you buy great red velvet cupcakes (and full cakes) there but you can also arrange to decorate them yourself. If you're super ambitious or have a bunch of teenage girls on your hands, you could even throw a Halloween cake-decorating party. The only thing Duff's doesn't have is its delicious red velvet cakes in a jar (please??), but they do have other cakes in Mason jars, so you can get them for variation. 8302 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; 323-650-5555.
6. Sweet Lady Jane
For more than 20 years, Sweet Lady Jane has been making stunning cakes in its pretty shop on Melrose Avenue, a stretch of town now known more for its super-chic boutiques than triple berry shortcake or seven-layer mocha cakes. Maybe ignore the fancy fashion shops and go eat cake for breakfast, because Jane Lockhart's shop (she opened a second one on Montana Avenue four years ago) is a lot more fun than shopping for outrageously expensive clothes. (OK, we're biased.) Sweet Lady Jane's red velvet comes in the form not of cupcakes (thank you) but a glorious three-layer, full-sized cake with classic cream cheese frosting and topped with very pretty frosting flowers. Unlike many bakeries, you don't have to buy the whole cake — the folks at the counter will cut an un-cut cake for you, presenting you with a huge, lovely slice to have with your cup of coffee. 8360 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; 323-653-7145. 1631 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; 310-254-9499.
5. Joan's on Third
As if you needed more reasons to love Joan McNamara's bakery and cafe, here's ANOTHER ONE. Both Joan's on Third locations, the old one and the one that just opened in Studio City, have terrific iterations of red velvet cake. Mostly it comes in the form of extremely pretty cupcakes, but sometimes there is also actual cake. Lucky us. These are predictably lovely cupcakes, with dark red, extremely moist cake and classic cream cheese frosting. Sit on the patio or inside, among all the baskets and shelves of candy and other lovely stuff — and all those cows — and enjoy your cake with a mug of coffee. After which you should probably have some meatloaf or mac and cheese, just because you can. (Eating dessert first happens a lot at Joan's.) 8350 W. Third St., Beverly Grove; 323-655-2285. 12059 Ventura Place, Studio City; 323-655-1967.
If this utterly gorgeous Doughboy's individual cake looks familiar to you, maybe you watch a lot of Oprah or Ellen, since both of those shows have featured it at one time or another. And rightfully so, as this is a crazy moist cake, sized just big enough to share (or not), and with a remarkably dense cream cheese frosting covering the top. Hang out in one of the comfy booths and treat yourself to this one, as the cafe is extremely cozy — and your server may even give you Instagram tips. If you can wait long enough to take some pictures before you devour the whole cake. Good luck with that one. 8136 W. Third St., Beverly Grove; 323-651-4202.
3. Cake Monkey
If you are not a fan of Cake Monkey, the North Hollywood bakery run by Lisa Olin and Elizabeth Belkind (an alum of Grace and Campanile), then you haven't been spending enough time eating their cakes and pies and stunning version of Ho-Ho's. Maybe go do something about that. So it should come as no surprise that their red velvet cakes are extraordinary. No cupcakes, but a full-sized layer cake, topped not with cream cheese frosting (though you can order it that way) but with a marvelous raspberry buttercream. You have to order these things in advance (give them 72 hours' notice), but it's well worth the effort. 10844 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood; (818) 508-9579.
2. Nickel Diner
Chef Monica May and co-owner Kristin Trattner have made their diner an oasis in downtown L.A. ever since it opened back in 2009, steps and a world away from Skid Row. It's an old-school place, with comfort food on the menu, a classic dessert tray and tables filled with loyal locals who've flocked to the place, some every day, for the last five years. Sure, there are maple bacon doughnuts, but there's also the fantastic red velvet cake, which comes by the slice. It's loaded with thick strata of cream cheese frosting, the interior layers of which are also embedded with Valrhona chocolate balls. Order a coffee and stay a while, because you'll need to eat the whole thing, and then maybe another slice as well. 524 S. Main St., dwntwn.; 213-623-8301.
1. Auntie Em's Kitchen
Terri Wahl's Eagle Rock restaurant is one of those neighborhood places that, once you've found it and settled in, you never want to leave. There are the addictive breakfasts (the orange French toast, the hashes and scrambles, the glorious breakfast torta); the adorable marketplace, where Wahl sells, among other things, her recent cookbook; and the stunning baked goods, including the giant cookies and the justly famous red velvet cakes and cupcakes. These are not ordinary iterations of red velvet cake but perfectly made, deeply traditional versions. The cake is absurdly moist and very, very red; the frosting is thick and just as sweet as it should be to balance the mild, vaguely tangy cake. Maybe blame Bobby Flay for the notoriety of these lovely cupcakes (Wahl once made them on his show), or maybe just blame Wahl herself for coming up with such a great recipe — which you can find on page 178 of her cookbook. 4616 Eagle Rock Blvd., Eagle Rock; 323-255-0800.
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