Even before York Boulevard morphed into a jumble of trendy boutiques and bars, Highland Park was an eater's paradise. You could eat tacos for days and never even go inside, so good are the taco trucks in this neighborhood. All kinds of regional Mexican delicacies could be found in the mom-and-pop restaurants throughout the neighborhood. Highland Park was a destination long before the current wave of gentrification.
But with that gentrification has come some pretty good eats. While many of the best things in the neighborhood are still found on those trucks and in those mom-and-pop eateries, now you can get great French, Italian, Vietnamese and even vegan food in Highland Park. It's always been one of our city's best destinations for Mexican — now, improbably, it's become a destination for all kinds of food. Will Highland Park change now that it's getting a hipster mini-mall with a wine shop and an Intelligentsia outpost? Maybe. But maybe not. Certain excellent restaurants have weathered two decades for a reason.
We've scoured the streets, eaten all the tacos (tough life), tried all the newbies and old standbys alike. What we found was a neighborhood in delicious transition. Check out our 10 favorites.
10. Metro Balderas
One of the many beautiful things about Metro Balderas is that, though it's only been open for about four years, it seems as if it's been serving its stellar Mexico City-style pambazos and huaraches, sopes and gorditas, for decades. Named for a Mexico City subway station, this little restaurant is cheery, thanks not only to the food but also to the bright orange walls and the regulars watching television over lunch or dinner, all washed down by excellent aguas frescas served in giant, chilled steins. 5305 N. Figueroa Blvd., Highland Park; 323-478-8383.
Highland Park is just beginning to explode with more high-end, date-night type spots, but Ba was one of the first. The adorable little French bistro (which is decorated more like a designer's bordello than an actual French bistro) has been serving moules frites, coq au vin and duck liver mousse on the corner of York and 51st since spring of 2012, and it's been doing a pretty good job of nailing the classics. The service can be a little spacy, and the food is more comforting than exciting, but it remains a favorite with the neighbors for a reason. It's dependable, good-looking and sincere. What more could you want from your date? 5100 York Blvd., Highland Park; 323-739-6243.
8. My Taco
Yet again, the L.A. culinary maxim that some of the best restaurants are found in grungy mini-malls holds true. Not only is the 20-year-old taqueria My Taco in such a location but it has one of those innocuous names that makes it possible for you to drive by this part of York many times without remembering to go in — unless, of course, you know how good the food is inside. Walk through the doors and you'll find not only unexpectedly cheery decor (bright colors, festive stuff on the walls) but unexpectedly remarkable dishes. The lamb barbacoa is glorious, as is the goat birria, and the plates of carne asada fries are among the best in the city. It should come as no great surprise that Michael Cimarusti (Providence, Connie & Ted's) spends so much time here. 6300 York Blvd., Highland Park; 323-256-2698.
7. Kitchen Mouse
Kitchen Mouse isn't actually technically vegan, though it's close. All the food starts out vegan (and most of it gluten-free) but you have the option to add eggs to any dish. They also use regular milk (organic, of course) for their coffee drinks. It's a breakfast and lunch operation, with salads, rice bowls and breakfast items such as vegan, gluten-free pancakes. Owner Erica Daking (who also owns a catering company of the same name) packs a ton of flavor into those vegan and gluten-free goodies, and her grain bowls are miraculous. Take the buffalo bowl, a combination of brown rice, black beans, collards, yams, dill-cashew sauce and buffalo sauce. With the addition of avocado, the bowl is tangy and creamy, with the sweetness of the roasted yams bringing it all together. The adorable room and friendly servers make this one of the most convivial spots in the neighborhood. 5904 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park; 323-259-9555.
6. El Faisan y el Venado
This small mom-and-pop restaurant serving the food of the Yucatán might be one of the friendliest places in the neighborhood. The owner, who works the front of the house, will seat you and enthusiastically walk you through the menu (which is plastered all over the walls along with giant photos), while his wife does the cooking in back. You must order a plate of the fantastic cochinita pibil, slow-cooked pork that's tender, juicy and soul-satisfying. On the side, a couple of the panuchos will hit the spot, the puffy fried tortillas supporting shredded chicken and a mess of pickled onion. Or, if you're super hungry, go for escabeche oriental, a giant turkey leg braised with vinegar and spices. 231 N. Avenue 50, Highland Park; 323-257-1770.
Every neighborhood should have a friendly pasta, pizza and beer joint, somewhere where the atmosphere and the food are equally excellent, and equally comforting. In a perfect world, every neighborhood would also have Andre Guerrero, who opened Maximiliano in 2011 because he's lived in the area for years and, presumably, wanted such a place near his home. The corner restaurant has ivy on the walls outside and spaghetti (painted, not actual) on the walls inside; a high-ceilinged dining room and cozy high-seated bar; and a wonderful menu of Italian favorites. The spaghetti and meatballs are outstanding, as is pretty much every other bowl of pasta you'll get here. 5930 York Blvd., Highland Park; 323-739-6125.
4. El Huarache Azteca
If you don't know what a huarache is, you've clearly not been spending enough time on York Boulevard. For the last 18 years, the folks at El Huarache Azteca have been making phenomenal examples of the fried-masa flatbreads, called huaraches because they're much the same shape as the leather sandals. Here they come loaded with all manner of wonderful things: marinated pork, steak, beans, potatoes and jalapeños, chicken and many other items, including huitlacoche, all stacked with onions and crema and whatever else strikes your fancy from the salsa bar. On Saturdays, they make barbacoa, and every day there's a fantastic assortment of truly stellar aguas frescas to help you wash down your huaraches. 5225 York Blvd., Highland Park; 323-478-9572.
3. Good Girl Dinette
There are many, many reasons to visit chef-owner Diep Tran's cozy "dinette," which can best be described as a mash-up of an old-school diner and a Vietnamese restaurant. Sort of. The list starts with the coffee, either Vietnamese coffee or some of the excellent drinks pulled at the little Cognoscenti coffee cart that's recently been permanently installed. From there, there's breakfast — pho or porridge or Tran's excellent hashes or, if you're lucky, her remarkable hand pies. (If you're even luckier, it will be moon pie season.) Later in the day, there are banh mi and the near-legendary chicken pot pies, noodle salads and little pots of pork confit and the plates of addictive spicy fries. Did we mention the hand pies? Right. 110 N. Avenue 56, Highland Park; 323-257-8980.
2. Sonny's Hideaway
Highland Park has its share of bars, and that share is growing quickly. But the cocktail program at Sonny's Hideaway would be remarkable anywhere in the city, with the kind of care and craft you'd never expect to find in a retro hole in the wall on York. The food, too, is perhaps some of the most underrated on this side of town, with chef Alexander Abdel-Monem presenting ambitious but comforting dishes such as fried chicken terrine with buffalo romesco, or black cod with beet puree and farro. The circular vinyl booths and '50s low-key swank vibe are positively endearing, and the whole place feels like a lucky discovery. 5137 York Blvd., Highland Park; 323-255-2000.
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1. Tacos La Estrella
A taco truck as the No. 1 spot? Well, yes. In fact, we probably could have made this entire list up of taco trucks, because Highland Park boasts some of the absolute best in town, and Tacos La Estrella stands out even among stiff competition. For $1.40, you get two or three of the best bites of food you could ask for. The meats are tender and delicious, the tortillas warm and sweet, the salsa tangy and smoky, the onion and cilantro scattered in just the right way. There's a particular magic to a perfect street taco, and La Estrella has it down. No wonder it has thrived on this York Boulevard corner for more than 20 years. Here's to 20 more. York & Avenue 54, Highland Park; 626-584-9815.