99 Things to Eat in L.A. Before You Die
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "99 Things to Eat in L.A. Before You Die" slideshow.
The theme of this issue is somewhat morbid. We’ll admit to that. We were going to call it "99 Things to Eat in L.A. Before You Move to San Diego," but it didn’t have the same ring of finality. You could probably drive up from San Diego if you were really, really in the mood for a maple-bacon biscuit but from beyond the grave? I’m afraid our metaphysics isn’t quite up to that one.
And as long as we’re on the subject of metaphysics, we will also confess to being a bit judgmental, because judgmental is what we do around here. If we’re suggesting that some things — 99 things — are on this particular list, we’re also suggesting that others are not. A Tito’s taco: Eat before you die. A Pink’s hot dog? You’re on your own.
See — you’ve barely started reading and we’ve already absolved you of the responsibility of standing in line behind Leonardo DiCaprio. You’ve already recouped the entire cost of the issue, and then some.
To eat, perchance to dream, in no particular order.
Eat before you die? If you get it from the wrong guy, blowfish can be what you taste rather immediately before you expire — tetrodotoxin, the nerve agent concentrated in the innards, is enough to paralyze a charging bull elephant, and is rumored to be the agent used to turn men into zombies. Usually, we satisfy our fugu cravings at Dae Bok, the Koreatown specialist that cooks the blowfish into a spicy, garlicky stew, but everybody should experience, at least once, the translucent petals of fugu sashimi prepared by Hiro Urasawa in its early spring season. But be warned: If the toxins won't get you, the size of the check just may. Urasawa, 218 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 247-8939.
Bulgarini's Goat's Milk Gelato
Los Angeles is a world capital of so many things, including, it turns out, goat's milk ice cream. Delicieuse, in Redondo Beach, is the most obvious source, sporting reams of literature about the health benefits of goat's milk and eight flavors of ice cream made with the stuff, all of them delicious but none of them particularly goaty. And then there's Leo Bulgarini, the Zen gelato master of Altadena, who amps up the strong, animal taste of his goat's milk gelato by tossing goat cheese into the mix along with a handful of toasted, unsweetened cacao nibs for maximum pungency — it's petting-zoo gelato, gelato you can almost imagine nibbling on your sleeves. Leo recommends that you pair it with a glass of rose prosecco from Valdobbiadene. Bulgarini Gelato, 749 E. Altadena Drive, Altadena. (626) 791-6174.
If you've been to a local farmers market midwinter, you've probably seen these things — lumpy, glowing, pale-green vegetables, the size of footballs bisected on their horizontal axes, plunked down near the counter at any Weiser Family Farms stand. If you're at the Pasadena farmers market, there may be a Caltech student or two nearby, admiring the peculiar geometry of the vegetable; fractal pyramids flowing in tight logarithmic spirals, cruciferous Fibonacci series, galaxies expressed in the medium of cauliflower. Nudge the postdocs out of the way and take one home. Made into a salad with pureed anchovies, roasted whole with a dribble of olive oil or sliced and sautéed with garlic and capers, the nutty, deep-flavored Romanesco is the queen of winter vegetables. weiserfamilyfarms.com.
San Nak Ji
I have read more about cephalopod nervous systems in the last couple of years than most of the people of my acquaintance, and I'm still not sure about the morality of eating this dish — which is to say, the tentacles of a humanely dispatched octopus, served chopped and still wiggling on a platter. The predominant school of thought states that the tentacles move purely by reflex, like beheaded chickens or the twitching frog legs many of us encountered in high school biology. Another theory, which begins to make sense when your next bite starts to crawl up your chopsticks, claims that the octopus brain is rather decentralized, and that the suckers adhering to the roof of your mouth are still very much alive. Imagine a dish so delicious that it occasionally outweighs pretty serious ethical concerns. That's san nak ji. Masan, 2851 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown. (213) 388-3314.
Sherry Yard's Kaiserschmarrn
Everybody who hasn't been to Spago since the 1980s knows exactly what to get there — pizza, chopped Chino Ranch vegetables, and pasta with goat cheese and broccoli. They're the dishes that made California cuisine famous, that fed Hollywood and made Wolfgang Puck America's first celebrity chef. Except that Spago hasn't really served those dishes in a while: Puck's and Lee Hefter's palates lean more toward the Austrian palette than toward the pizza party, and the one dish that has remained on the menu for the last dozen years has been the beet layer cake with goat cheese and pumpkinseed oil. Which leaves longtime Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard's Kaiserschmarrn, an ethereal, fluffy pancake served with strawberries. What does Tony Curtis have in common with Emperor Franz Josef I? Do you even have to ask? Spago, 176 N. Cañon Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 385-0880.
One Tito's taco is perhaps an underwhelming artifact: meat, lettuce and shredded cheese if you pay for it, forlorn in its prefab shell. A box of 22, on the other hand, is a Westside childhood writ large, unimaginable abundance, shredded animal flavored mostly of itself, rich and weighty and comforting. Purists who have just learned the difference between buche and tripas often disdain Tito's Tacos, imagining it as somehow "inauthentic." And I suppose it is inauthentic if you're comparing it to what may be available in outer Quintana Roo, although certain styles of taco-making in Durango are interestingly similar. What Tito's Tacos provides, 500 calories at a time, is the plain, nourishing taste of third-generation Mexican L.A. Tito's Tacos, 11222 Washington Place, Culver City. (310) 391-5780.
Even palates trained on Zeeland flats, French belons and Totten Inlet Virginicas can agree: The shellfish from Carlsbad Aquafarm is superb, scallops, mussels and abalone raised in one of those pristine lagoons south of Camp Pendleton, which appear — from the interstate at least — so deserted. Best of all are the Luna oysters: a hint of cucumber, a rush of sweet brine, a bit of crispness. You can find them at the better local oyster bars, places like Anisette Brasserie and BP Oysterette, but if you should find yourself near the Carlsbad stand at the Santa Monica or Hollywood farmers markets, pick up an icy half-dozen to eat on the spot. The cold muscadet is up to you. Santa Monica Farmers Market, Wednesdays and Saturdays at Arizona Ave. & 2nd St.; Hollywood Farmers Market, Sundays at Ivar Ave. & Selma Ave.
Chantilly's Sesame Cream Puffs
Airy, eggy, stuffed to order with blackish, sesame-flavored whipped cream, the puffs at Pâtisserie Chantilly are drizzled with mesquite honey and sprinkled with sweet, caramelized soy powder. Cream puffs like these may be fairly common in the tonier quarters of Tokyo, where South Bay local Keiko Nojima studied her art, but there is nothing in Los Angeles remotely like the exquisite creations she serves at this Japanese-French bakery tucked into a Lomita strip mall. Even if you're not a fan of the genre — far too many Japanese baked goods are squishy, gummy things that look a lot better than they taste — Nojima's cream puffs, even the ones that don't happen to be flavored with sesame, take full command. Pâtisserie Chantilly, 2383 Lomita Blvd., No. 104, Lomita. (310) 257-9454.
Golden Deli's Vietnamese Spring Rolls
Of all the well-documented marvels of the San Gabriel Valley, perhaps none has inspired as much devotion as the Vietnamese noodle shop Golden Deli, a sticky-table joint with an unmistakable scent: sweet, sharply garlicky, with faint overtones of fish sauce, roasted coffee and burnt spice. Why is everybody waiting outside in the mini-mall when there are identical restaurants within a few minutes' drive? Because Golden Deli has the best cha gio — fried Vietnamese spring rolls — in the observable universe, and its fans will do anything for a crack at the burnished, bubbly deep-fried cylinders. Golden Deli, 815 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel. (626) 308-0803.
Langer's Hot Pastrami
The idea may have been heretical when Mimi Sheraton first posited it half a lifetime ago, but it is a truth universally acknowledged: Langer's is the Lourdes of Jewish-deli meats, and its smoky, dense pastrami, steamed to exquisite tenderness, cut thickly by hand, sandwiched between slices of crunchy-edged, seeded rye bread, is, as The Michelin Guide is fond of saying, worth a voyage. If your East Coast friends are doubtful, the deli is happy to sell you pastrami in hermetically sealed packaging — now even New Yorkers can discover what pastrami is supposed to taste like. Langer's Delicatessen-Restaurant, 704 S. Alvarado St., L.A. (213) 483-8050.
Cut's Bone-Marrow Flan
Few dishes in the world are more delicious than Fergus Henderson's marrowbones at St. John in London, but the version of the dish served as an appetizer at Cut comes close — marrow extracted from roasted veal bones, whirred with cream and egg yolk, spooned back into the bones and baked until the custard is set. Cut's version, like Henderson's, is served with coarse salt, slices of toasted brioche and a little salad of parsley chopped just enough to tame its weedy overtones. But Cut's marrowbones may be even better, with all the richness, all the flavor, all the slightly transgressive sensation of feasting on a part of the animal that nature has so fiercely guarded but without the charred ends and the charnel-house smell. The preparation tastes like something plucked from the pages of Escoffier but comes straight from Lee Hefter's brain. Cut, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 276-8500.
If you tend to esteem human happiness more than the state of your teeth, you may have a bag of Little Flower caramels stashed in your desk right now: supple lozenges made with French sea salt from the Guérande, which dissolve into pure, buttery clouds of flavor. Christine Moore's caramels are probably the best candy made in Los Angeles at the moment. Little Flower Candy Co., 1424 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 304-4800.
Newport Seafood's Spicy Lobster
There are other things on the menu at Newport Seafood, and some of them are even good, but the Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant, which occupies a remodeled Marie Callender's, might as well have no menu at all: The throngs, most of which have waited a couple of hours for a table on a Saturday night, are there for the house-special lobster, a mammoth beast fried with chiles, black pepper and scallions, a dish as essential to Newport Seafood as chili dogs are to Pink's. It is the only Chinese place I know of where the waiters demand that you use a fork — chopsticks are insufficient for the task. Because it is work to dismantle these creatures, digging for bits of flesh from meat deep within the superstructure, fishing out coral and extracting slips of flesh from the legs. The lobsters, generally five to six pounds apiece at about $15 per pound, are not cheap, but they feed many. Newport Seafood, 518 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel. (626) 289-5998.
Matsuhisa's New-Style Sashimi
When Nobu Matsuhisa's "new-style" sashimi first made its appearance, the preparation seemed almost barbaric — thinly sliced fish dribbled with a warmed, ponzu-laced blend of sesame and extra virgin olive oils. Nobody had ever heard of Italian crudo at that point — the tide of oil seemed antithetical to the soul of sashimi and the blast of garlic and ginger was overwhelming. Sashimi: ice-cold, end of story. But as is true with so many things, Matsuhisa proved his critics wrong. The Nobu brand name seems more resilient than that of Toyota or Sony these days. Matsuhisa, 129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills. ( 310) 659-9639.
You know the gnocchi on the Thursday menu of every trattoria in Rome? These are not those. There is a taste to centuries of inevitability — maybe it's in the spoons. But ricotta gnocchi follow salad at Angeli like green grass follows the rain, and although they only show up as an occasional special — if gnocchi were on the regular menu, nobody would ever order anything else — your chances of running across them are pretty good. You can get the gnocchi with tomato sauce, but there isn't a foodstuff in the world that doesn't taste better with brown butter and sage. Angeli Caffe, 7274 Melrose Ave., L.A. (323) 936-9086.
Nothing furnishes a room like books, they say. And nothing furnishes a party like a big, shiny roasted pig from the Filipino roasting house Eva's, plopped whole in the middle of the table. Men will fear you. Women will admire you. Your vegetarian friends will feel entirely justified in their contempt. Everybody wins. But the apple in its mouth is strictly up to you. Eva's Lechon, 4252 W. Third St., L.A. (213) 383-3179.
If you wanted to track the progress of Mexican cooking here in the last few years, you could do worse than look at the state of the tortilla — the phrase hecho a mano is now more of a starting point than an end in itself. But even within the world of handmade tortillas, the gradations of quality verge on the infinite, and as much as we appreciate the toasty examples from Los 5 Puntos, the chile-flavored ones from La Casita Mexicana and the brawny ones from Lenchita's in Pacoima, the delicate, fragrant, almost mousse-light discs from John Sedlar's restaurant Rivera, herbs and flowers pressed into them like wildflowers preserved in the pages of a diary, are tortillas raised to the level of haute cuisine. It is not accidental that Sedlar's tortillas are served as a separate course of their own, needing no more embellishment than perhaps a few grams of guacamole. Rivera, 1050 S. Flower St., dwntwn. (213) 749-1460.
Wa Sushi's Apple Pie and Eel
Apple pie without the eel is like a kiss without the squeal — isn't that what they say in New England? Maybe not. Still, the combination, a regular on the post-Matsuhisian specials board at Wa Sushi, makes a certain sense when you think about it: a pairing of savory and sweet, melting richness and acidic fruit that is the basis of most of the foie gras or duck preparations you are likely to run across, and the warm, soft slabs of sea creature really do taste good laid across the pie. That said, if Wa is ever tempted to reimagine the dish with writhing masses of the baby eels Spaniards are so fond of, I am so out of there. Wa Sushi, 1106 N. La Cienega Blvd., No. 201, W. Hlywd. (310) 854-7285.
First off, this is a California interpretation of thin-crust Southside Chicago bar pizza, so if you didn't grow up rooting for the White Sox, back off: It doesn't resemble the pizza from Taconelli's or any place named Ray's because it's not supposed to, and it's cut into diamonds instead of slices because that's the way it's done. Secondly, you don't like canned mushrooms? Don't order it with mushrooms. You're offended by the idea of pineapple? Don't order the Hawaiian. The pasta isn't al dente? Go to one of those fancy places where the valet charge alone is more than the cost of feeding a family here. But if you're in the mood for dense, crunchy, chewy, half-burnt, family-cooked pizza with fried eggplant and homemade sausage, nothing even comes close. Casa Bianca, 1650 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock. (323) 256-9617.
Huarache de Cabeza
A huarache, the definitive unit of Mexico City street food, is a flattish, concave trough of masa shaped like a size-12 sandal, pan-fried or deep-fried, then smeared with beans, sprinkled with meat and layered with lettuce, grated cheese and cream. Part of the fun is eating the thing — a huarache is too brawny to attack with a flimsy plastic fork, and you will either burn your fingers or wait for your lunch to cool into corn-flavored cement. Emily Post provides no guidelines for eating a huarache. You can have a huarache topped with almost anything, from the black corn fungus called huitlacoche to standard-issue steak, but I like it best with cabeza — rich, gelatinous meat pulled from a cow's head and cooked down into an ultraconcentrated essence of beef. El Huarache Azteca #1, 5225 York Blvd., Highland Park. (323) 478-9572.
Kogi's Kalbi Taco
Forget the paradigm shift, the social-media buzz, the legions of imitators, the rock star–chef thing and the lines that stretch halfway to Rosemead. We know that Kogi is a new kind of restaurant, an art-directed take on Korean street food previously unimaginable in both California and Seoul, truck food that makes you feel plugged into Los Angeles. What's relevant here is that a Kogi kalbi taco is really freaking good, Korean-style short ribs tucked into a decent-quality tortilla with shredded cabbage, a bit of chile and a proto-Korean relish of scallions, soy, sesame seeds and citrus, difference neatly split between a Mexican taco and a Korean ssäm. Kogi, twitter.com/kogibbq.
Canary's Lamb-Tongue Sandwich
Overshadowed by the magnificent Iranian stews, elegant rice dishes and complex soups, Iranian sandwiches are perhaps undervalued, though not by the expats who crowd into Tehrangeles cafés around noon. But there it is, even better than at its rival Attari, juicy, gently flavored grilled lamb's tongue tucked into a hollowed-out length of toasted French bread, and dressed in a way that may seem familiar to hot-dog cognoscenti, like something you might hope to find in a cross-cultural dive restaurant somewhere in Tehran itself. If you insist, they will make the sandwich for you with an actual Hebrew National frank instead of the tongue. Canary, 1942 Westwood Blvd., Wstwd. (310) 470-1312.
Fab L.A.'s Street Dog
Actually, you should be eating this after midnight somewhere out on Whittier Boulevard, cooked on a cheap device crudely welded to a stolen shopping cart by a guy who knows that sheriff's deputies are required to demolish the rig on sight. Street dogs always taste better that way: wrapped in bacon, squirted with mayonnaise and ketchup, and piled with grilled onions, peppers and grilled chiles. Similar to what is known as a Sonora dog elsewhere in the country, the street dog is bad to the bone, chips of which you can probably find in the meat. But sometimes you want all of the flavor and none of the salmonella. At such times, there is always Reseda. Fab Dogs, 6747 Tampa Ave., Reseda. (818) 344-4336.
Italian-Americans in South Philly have spaghetti and meatballs, a dish that never existed in the motherland, served in portions that make Fellini movies seem like documentaries. Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles have the Hollenbeck, a.k.a. Manuel's Special, which is more or less an old-line Mexican restaurant's entire menu wrapped into a bedsheet of a tortilla the size of a pillowcase. The streets are paved with gold, the burrito seems to imply. The rivers flow with Coca-Cola, and the burritos are too heavy to lift. The burrito is crude, you say? Why do you hate America? El Tepeyac Café, 812 N. Evergreen Ave., City Terrace. (323) 268-1960.
Aged in buried clay amphorae? Vinified to taste like Hefeweizen? Smelling a bit, quite intentionally, of old socks? Lou Amdur's ideas about wine are more evolved than yours or mine, grounded firmly in the land of meta, so that sound winemaking is dull; intellectual fraudulence can be a sign of integrity; and the fact that you like a wine means that there's probably something wrong with it. That dude from Sideways? He wouldn't last a minute here, at least when the conversation turned from overextracted Santa Ynez pinot noir to superior wines made with braucol, mtsvane or timorasso. Lou, 724 Vine St., Hlywd. (323) 962-6369.
Anisette's Pain au Chocolat
I have tasted way more than my share of these, both in Los Angeles and in systematic paths through the bakeries of Paris, but it was not until I tasted Alain Giraud's compact beauties that I finally realized the crisply intense breakfast pastry's ultimate purpose: not as a mere accompaniment to a café au lait and not just to showcase the chocolate, but as the ultimate expression of the gamy, slightly tart roundness of cultured butter. At such times is one's soul exposed to God. Anisette Brasserie, 225 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 395-3200.
Paleron With Kumquats and Cream of Wheat
Josef Centeno is often grouped with the postmodernist chefs, partly because his cuisine leans toward cross-cultural idioms, and partly because his career path, which has pinged from grand restaurants to bars and diners, is unconventional. But at bottom, I think, he cooks like a slightly hip French grandmother, classic cuisine bourgeois inflected with Los Angeles flavors, and the best food at all of his restaurants tends to be his long-braised meats. Don't miss his spoonably soft paleron, the thick cut of beef shoulder that is known as flatiron when it's cut into steaks instead of braised in red wine, nestled with bittersweet slices of kumquat into a gently salted bed of Cream of Wheat. The dish sounds kind of avant-garde, but is closer to a perfected version of Aunt Fanny's Sunday pot roast. Lazy Ox Canteen, 241 S. San Pedro St., dwntwn. (213) 626-5299.
Musso & Frank's Welsh Rarebit
Los Angeles, we are often told, is a city that refuses to recognize its past — as if, as in Sunset Boulevard, it weren't the most obsessively memorialized city in the world. And there is no restaurant anywhere, not Keens Steakhouse, Simpsons-in-the-Strand or Bofinger, as immersed in its past as Musso & Frank Grill, which is almost a museum of the American lunchroom menu of 1918: avocado cocktail, finnan haddie, chicken potpie, lamb kidneys Turbigo and diplomat pudding. Not least among these nursery-food classics is the Welsh rarebit, a concoction of cheese melted with ale, dusted with paprika and poured over toast. Think of it as ballast for your second martini. Musso & Frank Grill, 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 467-7788.
A flauta is a corn tortilla wrapped tightly around a meat filling and fried. The flautas at Ciro's, an iron-barred, low-ceilinged room alive with the funk of frying meat, are tiny things, piccolo flautas, that come six to an order, tightly rolled and very crisp, sauced with thick, chunky, fresh guacamole and a splash of Mexican cream. The shredded meat inside is usually frizzled to a chewy consistency almost like carne seca, and tends to be a little salty, with a smack of pure beef flavor that cuts through the strong tastes of corn and hot oil. Restaurant taquitos tend to be pretty prefab. To go to Ciro's is like visiting a friend's grandmother who just happens to have homemade flautas on hand. Ciro's, 705 N. Evergreen St., E.L.A. (323) 269-5104.
The Gorbals' Dill Fries
Scottish-Jewish cuisine may be a construct that exists solely within the perfervid imagination of The Gorbals chef Ilan Hall, but an order of his French fries, cooked with whole garlic cloves and great, aromatic handfuls of fresh dill, is, as they say, a fact on the ground. Do you eat them before, after or along with the bacon-wrapped matzo balls? That part is up to you. The Gorbals, in the Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., dwntwn. (213) 488-3408.
Jitlada's Fish Kidneys
This southern Thai curried fish, at least as interpreted at Jitlada, is one of the more intense things you will ever put in your mouth, a stunningly complex brew of organ stink, aromatics and chile heat that can be compared to biting down on a 9-volt battery, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. In southern Thailand, curries this intense are served over fluffy, hard-fried Thai omelets instead of mere rice, and the rich blandness of the eggs does indeed increase the dish's user-friendliness at least tenfold. Jazz Singnasong swears that some people from the Bay Area stop by her restaurant every few weeks and leave with 30 portions of fish kidneys to go. She thinks they may resell them in their own Thai restaurant, but I think they might just be in need of something to eat on the way up the 5. Jitlada, 5233 Sunset Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 667-9809.
Northern Italian frico, a cheese crisp traditionally made with grated Montasio, was a Valentino signature for years, and good enough that Joe Bastianich built a New York restaurant around it before he decided to throw his lot in with Mario Batali. But the Mexican version, as served at Lotería Grill, may be even better: grated cheese sizzled on a flattop until it becomes a glossy, crisp mass as broad and as thin as a proper Indian dosa. You know the bits stuck to the pan after you've made a grilled-cheese sandwich? It's like that, a guilty, over-the-sink pleasure turned into public ritual, folded into a hot, freshly made tortilla, completed with a spoonful of guacamole and a shot or two of tequila. Chicharron de queso is thirsty work. Lotería Grill, 6627 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 465-2500.
Ivy's Corn Chowder
The Ivy's patio is where the much-photographed dine when they wish to be photographed at their best; laughing, splashed with sunlight on a Los Angeles afternoon, in a location where paparazzi are part of the décor. When at the Ivy, they often find it necessary to eat. And when they eat, they are likely to have the corn chowder, wholesome Americana as reinvented long ago by a chef from tropical Mexico with his nose pressed up against the window. The soup, not too caloric, sizzles with gentle chile heat, brightened with a sunny hint of fennel and a sweet bit of pepper. Here, the most Midwestern of ingredients masquerades as a Mediterranean prince. Ivy, 113 N. Robertson Blvd., L.A. (310) 274-8303.
Philippe's French Dip
Long before anybody thought to shave pig ears onto $33 entrées, Los Angeles was famous for its French dip sandwiches, sliced roast meat laid onto French rolls sopped in meat juice. The family that owns Philippe's claims the sandwich was discovered when an employee accidentally dropped a roll into some beef drippings; most of a century later, politicians, circus clowns and families in town for the Dodgers game still shuffle through the sawdust on the floor of the old dining room for the damp taste of history, seasoned with the restaurant's nostril-searing hot mustard. I always get the lamb dip with blue cheese. Philippe's, 1001 N. Alameda St., L.A. (213) 628-3781.
Cole's French Dip
Cole's, which until it was almost invisibly redone by downtown tavern auteur Cedd Moses had been the oldest L.A. restaurant in continuous operation, always claimed that one of its cooks came up with the French dip as an accommodation to a customer with sore gums. It too has a proprietary hot mustard. It also has good things to drink, although they tend toward the champagne cocktail rather than Philippe's Napa cabernet. Cole's French dip, reimagined by Grace's Neal Fraser, is a carefully constructed sandwich, roasted beef or pork on a crusty, custom-baked roll, small-producer cheese if you want it, jus on the side. The ingredient crowd likes Cole's. The gestalt crowd likes Philippe's. I, on the other hand, would like another rye old-fashioned. Cole's, 118 E. Sixth St., L.A. (213) 622-4090.
El Parian's Birria
Mexican cuisine is rich in hangover cures, first among them, of course, being menudo. But for transplants from central Mexico, birria is nearly a sacrament, a meditation in the key of chile, meat and cloves, young goat roasted and stewed and simmered until the tough-minded billy collapses into a soft, gelatinous sigh. It is nearly as easy now to find birria in Los Angeles as it is in the dish's hometown of Guadalajara, where it is seen as a bit old-fashioned but woozy Sunday mornings tend to find me at El Parian downtown, where the tortillas are thick and fresh; the chile-smeared rib meat is crisp on its bones; and the consommé sings with garlic, spice and a strong, goaty essence. It's almost shocking in a restaurant just a few blocks from the Convention Center. El Parian, 1528 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (213) 386-7361.
La Brea Bakery's Country White Bread
If you grew up in Los Angeles, you may remember the year damp baguettes at Westside dinner parties began to be replaced by flour-dusted rounds of sourdough that befuddled hostesses foolish enough to attack them with a nonserrated knife. These loaves of natural-starter bread, the crucial product from Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bakery, had profoundly crackly crusts, deep brown, speckled with fermentation bubbles, with dense, chewy, moist interiors with the vaguely tart quality of fresh cheese. Twenty years later, La Brea's rounds of country white, which you can buy at almost any supermarket, can seem almost banal, at least to the local/sustainable crowd. But the fact remains: It is still among the best breads in America, the bread that changed the game. La Brea Bakery, 624 S. La Brea Ave., L.A. (323) 939-6813.
It's a hot dog. It's on a stick. It's fried in cornmeal batter and served by pretty college girls who wear tall, multicolored caps. If you are an Angeleno of a certain age, a mere whiff of a Hot Dog on a Stick is enough to transport you back to Santa Monica of the 1960s, when you probably ate your skewered weenie on your way to ride the Sea Serpent at the old P.O.P. (That's Pacific Ocean Park to you grommits.) As a regional hot dog style, Hot Dog on a Stick may be outranked by Nathan's Famous in Coney Island, but even New York City has nothing to compare with the sight of a short-skirted Hot Dog on a Stick employee pumping up a tankful of lemonade. Hot Dog on a Stick, various locations including Muscle Beach, Glendale Galleria and Westside Pavilion.
Chinois' Sizzling Catfish
Encounters with this magnificent fish once seemed so important in the early days of California cuisine — it was the size of the shark from Jaws, it was fried crisp, and it was the emblematic dish of Wolfgang Puck's Chinois, which in turn was the emblematic restaurant of Asian-fusion crossover cooking. It came — it comes — with a citrusy ponzu sauce, which at the time we didn't think weird in a Chinese-style preparation. Several generations of cooks have become incredibly weary of cooking the thing, which seems to dominate any menu it touches, but at the time, it seemed so modern! So daring! So ... 1983! In retrospect, of course, it was just a fried fish but a really good one. It remains the perfect centerpiece to a Chinois meal. Chinois, 2709 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 392-9025.
Apple Pan's Hickoryburger
McDonald's, I am occasionally ashamed to admit, was born not too far from here; the double-decker Big Boy grew up in Burbank. But Los Angeles was also the birthplace of the great, lettuce-intensive lunch-counter hamburger: a drippy, paper-jacketed sandwich where the thin stratum of beef serves almost as a condiment. The lunch-counter burger is the burger that inflames desires in Karachi teenagers and young Masai tribesmen. Will you find a better example than the Hickoryburger at the Apple Pan, a funky, onion-scented 1940s Los Angeles lunchroom that happens still to be serving in 2010? Not likely. Apple Pan, 10801 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (310) 475-3585.
Brooklyn's Hearth-Baked Bagel
There are some unbelievably bad bagels in Los Angeles. And to be honest, if it's your first visit to Historic Filipinotown Brooklyn Bagel Bakery, you are going to expect to eat one of them. The shabbiness and bare lighting are okay — that, you expect — and it's kind of cool that the person who takes your order probably wandered over from another part of the plant. But the glass cases are stuffed with pizza bagels, strawberry bagels and banana-nut bagels, among other atrocities, and the regular bagels are as puffed up as what you see in supermarkets. Still, there in the corner, illuminated as if from within, are the hearth-baked bagels, which is to say, dense, chewy, taut-skinned bagels, tinged with crispness but not crisp, properly boiled before baking — real bagels. It is interesting to contemplate the idea that "properly done'' is just one of a dozen flavors here, like cinnamon-raisin or jalapeño-cheese, but it is better than having it not be an option at all. Brooklyn Bagel Bakery, 2217 Beverly Blvd., L.A. (213) 413-4114.
Palate's Vegetables en Papillote
If the calendar function should stop working on your iPhone, and you happen to be occupying a table at Palate Food + Wine, you could probably get a pretty good fix on the week of the year by looking at the contents of these vegetables roasted with herbs and olive oil in a bag. The cooking method brings out the sweet freshness of baby carrots, asparagus, onions, peppers, whatever's in season, in a straightforward, spectacular way. Palate, 933 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. (818) 662-9463.
Akasha's Quinoa With Edamame
When I was in a Lima slum a few years ago, sitting in on a class where Quechua-speaking migrants were taught to make dinner from indigenous Andean grains, what impressed me the most were the looks of absolute misery on the faces of the students. "I walked across three mountain ranges for this?" they seemed to be thinking. "I didn't come to the city to cook fucking quinoa, I came to the city to escape fucking quinoa. Wake me up when you get to the part about french fries." But quinoa, especially the sprouted red kind, can have a certain nutty charm, at least if you don't have to cook it yourself. And that bowl of steamed quinoa with edamame at Akasha, a fleeting reminder of the chef's vegan roots? Ascetic but not bad. Don't forget to get an order of onion rings on the side. Akasha, 9543 Culver Blvd., Culver City. (310) 845-1700.
Have you ever seen a strawberry doughnut from Donut Man? It is an iceberg of a doughnut, a heavy, flattened demisphere big enough to use as a Pilates aid, split in two and filled to order with what must be an entire basket of fresh strawberries, and only in season. The fruit is moistened with a translucent gel that lubricates even the occasional white-shouldered berry with a mantle of slippery sweetness — oozing from the sides — forming frozen whorls, turning the bottom of the pasteboard box into a sugary miasma in the unlikely event that the doughnuts actually make it home. The tawny pastry itself is only lightly sweetened, dense and slightly crunchy at the outside, like most good doughnuts, with a vaguely oily nuttiness and an almost substantial chew. It is the only doughnut I have ever seen that is routinely served with a plastic knife and fork. The stand is on the way to nowhere, but the doughnuts are worth all the irreplaceable fossil fuel it takes to get there. Donut Man, 915 E. Route 66, Glendora. (626) 335-9111.
Chili John's Chili
What Chili John's serves isn't Cincinnati chili or Texas chili or Detroit Coney chili but a spicy, all-but-extinct Wisconsin style (and I for one am thankful for that), dense and comforting, lean and hearty, with a cumin wallop and a subtle, smoky heat that creeps up on you like the first day of a Santa Ana wind. Do you go to Chili John's for Three-Tequila Rattlesnake chili, for Mango-Habañero chili or for Gee, Your Hat Smells Terrific? No, you do not. This is the kind of chili you get here: chili. But you can get it with beans if you want, with spaghetti, or with spaghetti and beans if you're feeling a little racy. The day Chili John's comes back from its annual July vacation is one of the happiest days of the year. Chili John's, 2018 W. Burbank Blvd., Burbank. (818) 846-3611.
101 Noodle Express' Beef Roll
If you keep up with Chinese cooking in the San Gabriel Valley, you may have heard of the beef roll, a steroidal composition of fried Chinese pancakes, cilantro and great fistfuls of thinly sliced meat wetted with sweet bean sauce and formed into something like a Chinese burrito the size of your arm. A specialty of Shandong, half a day's drive south of Beijing, a proper beef roll may be big enough to feed a family of four but is also oddly delicate; it may taste of crisped pastry and clean oil but also projects the muscularity of the braised meat. 101 Noodle Express, 1025 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. (626) 446-8855. Also at 1408 Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 300-8654.
Eva Solo-Brewed Coffee
Somewhere in the back of a hall closet is what's left of three dozen INAO tasting glasses, crystal designed to expose a wine's virtues and flaws in total, excruciating detail. It wasn't long before I realized that I didn't necessarily want to taste wine quite that carefully. But I have fallen hard for the coffee equivalent, a willowy brewing carafe encased in tight, zippered neoprene, like a fitted wet suit on a supermodel, which brings out all there is to know about a roasted bean. Of course, the beans have to be pretty good, and at La Mill, L.A.'s best homegrown coffee company, they are. When you order that single-estate Kenyan, there is clear, limpid coffee in your cup, light-roasted, tart, smelling rather more of fruits and flowers than like whatever it is you're getting at Peet's. La Mill, 1636 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 663-4441.
The signature object — a couple wieners, some chili, a scrap of pastrami and fried cabbage wrapped up in a tortilla — may be Mexican-Jewish-Chinese food prepared by Okinawans for a largely African-American clientele, but nobody who lived through the early years of the Hollywood punk-rock scene will ever think of it as anything but a continuation of the West Hollywood stand everybody used to haunt after Germs shows. Okinawans are famous in scientific circles for their longevity — could Oki Dogs be the key? Oki Dog, 5056 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (323) 938-4369.
Comme Ca's Cheeseburger
The last conversation I had with chef David Myers lingered on a kaiseki restaurant he'd visited in Kyoto, its silence, and the great specialty it had been perfecting since 1292: a plain, perfect soft-cooked egg. So perhaps he understands why, with the evanescent wonders that pour out of his kitchens at Sona, and the finely realized brasserie cooking at Comme Ça around the corner, I find myself drawn most often to the Zen perfection of his cheeseburger. But Comme Ça's lunchtime-only cheeseburger is sui generis: a thick, dripping, loosely packed puck of bloody-rare beef, glazed with a good Cheddar, barely but adequately contained in a soft, shiny-crusted bun. This cheeseburger is from an old tradition in which ingredients are allowed to speak for themselves, an unfussy burger that tastes like good, aged meat. "It's basically my mother's hamburger,'' confesses the chef. Comme Ça, 8479 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. (323) 782-1178.
It can be difficult to choose a restaurant in Little India, but it's easy to choose dessert. Because as enamored as one may be with the reborn Standard Sweets or the halvah at Pioneer Boulevard's many chaat shops, the Saffron Spot wins every time. If I were made of sterner stuff, I would be drawn to the house's caramel-y, austerely delicious matka kulfi, a traditional ice cream made from milk slowly boiled until it becomes almost thick enough to resist the fierce Indian sun. But glittery objects tend to undo one. And it is hard to imagine ice cream more blissfully gaudy than the Saffron Silk, saffron-tinted to the brightness of a sari, flavored with a bit of rosewater and studded with pistachios. Saffron Spot, 18744 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 809-4554.
Yellow Fish Fried With Hair Seaweed
What could be better than french fries? Possibly this Shanghai-style preparation of battered fillets that resembles nothing so much as freshly fried fish doughnuts, a seafood dish so tender, it makes Mrs. Paul's fish sticks seem as tough as raw eel liver: crisp, greaseless and unexpectedly fragile. Giang Nan, 306 N. Garfield Ave., No. A-12, Monterey Park. (626) 573-3421.
A couple of times a month, I have it on good authority, a certain kind of comment card shows up in the stack at Pizzeria Mozza, written out in old-fashioned, auntly Italian script, suggesting that what the restaurant serves is the furthest thing from pizza. And perhaps that is true. But in the wood oven at Pizzeria Mozza, Nancy Silverton has more or less reinvented the very idea of pizza: airy and burnt and risen around the rim, thin and crisp in the center, neither bready in the traditional Neapolitan manner nor wispy the way you find them in Rome. The crust is so good, in fact, that it may be at its best dressed with nothing more than a drizzle of good olive oil and a few grains of sea salt — and it's not sad to eat topped with burrata and vivid squash blossoms, taleggio and house-made sausage, lardo and rosemary or pureed anchovies and fried egg. (The mandatory caveat applies here: Silverton is a family friend.) This isn't your mama's pizza, and it's not the pizza you used to eat back in Jersey, and that, perhaps, is the point. Pizzeria Mozza, 641 N. Highland Ave., L.A. (323) 297-0101.
Shanghai Xiao Chi's Pork Pump
The name of the dish came into existence, I was once told, as a typo on the menu at Mon Kee, the first serious seafood restaurant in Chinatown, and it has passed from menu to menu ever since. (I will, for the moment, ignore the inconvenient fact that Mon Kee was Cantonese, while pork pump is ur-Shanghainese, and that it was never clear what exactly was misspelled — the specific cut involved comes from nowhere near the rump.) In all the world, nobody braises with quite the intensity of the Shanghainese, who slow-cook the pump in a rich master sauce of soy and stock and rock sugar and rice wine until it becomes sweet and trembling and barely solid enough to hold its shape in a spoon before it collapses into a fragrant, slightly viscous puddle. For a long time, the local standard-bearer was Lake Spring in Monterey Park; at the moment, I might lean toward the place alternately called Wok n' Noodle and Shanghai Xiao Chi, although you will find neither name outside the restaurant, which from the front resembles nothing more than a shuttered print shop. Shanghai Xiao Chi, 828 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 588-2284.
Shanxi Knife-Cut Noodles
JTYH, a descendant of the late, great Heavy Noodling, specializes in the sorts of noodles a Cantonese chef would disavow at the point of a sword: thick, irregular things, frilled where they taper to an edge, shaved from a log of dough directly into boiling water. They're self-consciously rustic things that taste of themselves whether fried with moo shoo pork and lots of garlic or immersed with tendon in a deep, anise-scented beef broth. The noodles, which are in the style of Shanxi, a northern Chinese province sandwiched somewhere between Beijing and Inner Mongolia, have the good, dense bite of the best Italian pasta, and the heft to be used as bondage implements if that's the way you roll. JTYH Restaurant, 9425 Valley Blvd., Rosemead. (626) 442-8999.
A bowl of soon tofu looks less like food than a special effect, a heaving, bright-red mass in a superheated cauldron that spits like a lake of volcanic lava, and broadcasts a fine, red mist of chile and broth that tints anything within six inches of the bowl a pale, lustrous pink. If you saw soon tofu in a dark alley, you'd run. A soft, freshly made bean curd served in a bowl with broth, soon tofu is one of the wonders of the Korean culinary world. Get it with clams. Beverly Soon Tofu Restaurant, 2717 W. Olympic Blvd., L.A. (213) 380-1113.
Pho Minh's Pho Bac
Don't get me wrong — there's something cool, almost punk-rock about the snappy, MSG-juiced phos in town, Vietnamese beef-noodle soups that slap you across the face and command you to guzzle ice water. The pho bac at Pho Minh is different: a limpid, full-flavored, long-cooked broth, sprinkled with slivered fresh ginger and fortified with a delicious hunk of meat that looks something like a filet mignon that has just lost a bad razor fight. The broth is deeply scented with Vietnamese cinnamon, which is the best in the world, or at least that's what the guy at Penzeys says when he's charging me an extra buck for it. The pho dac biet is great, too, although it seems almost vulgar in comparison. Pho Minh, 9646 E. Garvey Ave., No. 108, South El Monte. (626) 448-8807.
Bigmista's Pig Candy
If pigs had their way, pig candy would be made out of chocolate — better yet, out of chocolate positioned in a trough right in front of them. But for better or worse, pig candy is the vernacular name for a snack made out of smoky, thick-cut bacon baked with lots and lots of brown sugar until it transforms itself into demonically fragrant slabs that bear more than a passing resemblance to pork-belly terrine. You want some of this stuff. Really you do. And if you should happen to be in Atwater on a Sunday morning, you should probably swing by the barbecue concession 'round the back, because Bigmista and Mrs. Mista will set you up with the best. Bigmista, Sun. at Atwater farmers market; Tues. & Sat. at Torrance farmers market; Thurs. at El Segundo farmers market. Menus, hours and preordering info at bigmista.com.
Euro Pane's Egg Salad Sandwich
You will find as many schools of egg salad–sandwich craft as you will brands of wax paper in which to wrap them. But the only one that matters is the agrestic, back-to-nature school, which is to say gooey-centered soft-boiled eggs chopped as coarsely as possible, bound with a minimal amount of freshly mounted olive-oil mayonnaise, loosely piled onto sourdough and sprinkled with the number of snipped herbs that one thinks prudent. In these things, as in so many others, we look to Europane. Euro Pane, 950 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (818) 577-1828.
Mandarin House's cha chiang mein
If you've ever been to a Chinese elementary school carnival or supermarket opening, you've seen hand-pulled noodles, the kind made by some old guy who slams a length of dough a couple of times on a counter, performs a few calisthenic movements and ends up with an armload of spaghetti. Hand-pulled noodles are immeasurably better than the machine-made kind: stretchy yet supple, irregularly shaped, veritable magnets for sauce. For some reason, the vast majority of L.A. chefs skilled in noodle-pulling seem to own Chinese restaurants aimed at a Korean clientele, and perhaps the best of these is Mandarin House, right in the heart of Koreatown. The kung pao shrimp at Mandarin House may be pedestrian, but the cha chiang mein, hand-pulled noodles in a dense, black sauce of fermented beans and pork, is out of this world. Mandarin House, 3074 W. Eighth St., Koreatown. (213) 386-8976.
Little Dom's Oyster Po' Boy
New Orleans has given so much to the world. And right up there with Dixieland jazz, Professor Longhair and the early novels of Walker Percy may stand the oyster loaf, which is basically fried oysters slipped into a buttered length of French bread. Though Casamento's in uptown New Orleans remains my personal benchmark for the sandwich, I admit a grudging admiration for Brandon Boudet's less-restrained version, at the Italian-Creole Little Dom's: fried, freshly shucked mollusks piled onto crunchy toasted focaccia with tomatoes, a crumpled sheet of the smoked Italian bacon called speck and a peppery remoulade. Little Dom's, 2128 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz. (323) 661-0055.
Why is Los Angeles the best place to eat on the planet? Because on a random East L.A. street corner, a woman behind a rickety card table can be cooking the best cheese enchiladas you've ever tasted in your life: prefab tortillas fried way too hard with way too much oil, dunked in too much chile and given another industrial sear. They're chewy and crunchy, spicy and smoky, smeared with a bit too much cream, and are absolutely amazing. Then you'll never see her again. Except when you do. No address, but she seems to operate about one block from the vendors who tweet as @BreedStScene. Maybe you'll get lucky.
A-Won's Al Bap
Korean sushi has its fascinations — its live-fish fixations, the emphasis on strong-tasting invertebrates like sea squirt and fresh sea cucumber, and the delightful custom of including sliced hot chiles, raw garlic and kkaennip alongside the customary wasabi and soy. But peasant that I am, I can never tear myself away from the ever-fascinating al bap, a big bowl of sushi rice frosted with a half-dozen different kinds of fish eggs, laid out in contrasting streaks radiating from a plop of creamy sea-urchin roe at the center of the bowl like rays from the sun. You can mix them together, gild them with the raw chicken–egg yolk that shares its bowl, or savor them egg by egg by egg until you are done. A-Won, 913½ S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown. (213) 389-6764.
Southern California is blessed with superlative homegrown fruits and vegetables, but local meat is much harder to buy. It's not economically viable to raise cattle on expensive land. Brandt isn't precisely local — the ranch is down south of the Salton Sea — but it's closer than pretty much anything else, and the quality of the organic, sustainably raised beef is exceptional, especially the braising cuts. Oddly, Brandt beef is much easier to find in New York City than it is here, but you'll find a small, nicely curated selection in the meat case of HOWS supermarkets. brandtbeef.com.
Because sometimes you want coffee from that three-hectare, 1,730-meter, southwest-facing, tree-shaded, granitic-soiled, Cup of Distinction finca, and sometimes you just want something that's going to jolt you back to life in the morning. Monkey and Son's colossal Krakatoa coffee, a muscular blend of African and Sumatran beans strong enough to put hair on a bald ape's chest, is organic, Fair Trade–certified and locally roasted, all of that save-the-planet stuff, but the flavor roars out of your cup like an early Stooges record. Beans sold at Surfas, and through monkeyandson.com.
El Atacor #11's Potato Tacos
You will encounter many schools of thought when it comes to these tacos, some of which call for coarsely mashed spuds, others for herbs, and still others for a wallop of chorizo. But all pale before El Atacor #11's tacos de papa: thin corn tortillas folded around gooey spoonfuls of puree and fried to an indelicate, shattering crunch. The barely seasoned potatoes ooze out of the tacos with the deliberate grace of molten lava. The glorious stink of hot grease and toasted corn subsumes any subtle, earthy hint of potato, and guacamole-drenched tacos de papas evaporate so quickly from the table that you understand why they come 10 to an order. El Atacor #11, 2622 N. Figueroa St., L.A. (323) 441-8477.
What the owners of Rajdhani like to call Gujarati dim sum might more properly be called a bottomless vegetarian thali, the cooking of the central Indian province overwhelming you with labyrinths of flavor and a profusion of perfumes, a 10-course combination platter constantly refilled in all of its components. After 45 minutes, your plate will look like a slightly messier version of the plate you started with. But even as your buttons start to pop, you will find yourself unable to stop begging for khandvi, tart, fermented-batter crepes smeared with lentils and coiled into tubes. The concept of too much khandvi does not exist in any language. Rajdhani, 18525 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 402-9102.
Ludo's Fried Chicken
When you glance at a 1940s edition of Duncan Hines' Adventures in Good Eating, the important national restaurant guide of the time, Los Angeles looks to be the most chicken-obsessed metropolis in the universe — almost one-third of the listed restaurants are devoted to the specialty. But the fried chicken that the city is dreaming about at the minute comes from a Parisian haute-cuisine dude who probably couldn't tell you the difference between the chickens fried in Iowa and the chickens fried in Mississippi, but sets a crust like a Jesus-loving Alabama housewife with a bit of the devil in her soul. Brined, impossibly juicy, laced with strong herbs, Ludovic Lefebvre's fried chicken is pretty close to the godhead, whether fried Basque-style in duck fat, served with Oaxacan mole or served to 2,000 people waiting in line at a food festival on a winter afternoon. Find the latest incarnation of Lefebvre's pop-up restaurant, LudoBites, at ludolefebvre.com.
There are those who would complain that Lawry's uses indifferent meat, that the experience is corporatized, and that the dining room is thronged with visitors from the beef-deprived regions of Europe and Asia. I maintain that they are missing the point. Because with careful lighting, appropriate pomp and the silver cart, that slice of beef becomes the single-most glamorous dish in the world, the beef of kings and queens with creamed spinach on the side. If Los Angeles has taught us anything, it is this: Sometimes we don't want to see the man behind the curtain. Lawry's, 100 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 652-2827.
Campanile’s Grilled Prime Rib
Prime rib, it must be said, is mostly a come-on, a loss-leader at butcher counters, a bland expanse of underflavored flesh anchoring hotel buffets. It can also be a fairly precise description of one of the fattiest, tenderest, most delicious parts of a USDA Prime steer, and that's what you find at Campanile: rubbed with salt, passed over the fire by one of the most skillful grill guys in the galaxy, and served with perfect cannelini beans and a mess of sautéed bitter greens. Forget your bourbon-soaked steak houses: If you want to earn your infarction, this is the place to start. Campanile, 624 S. La Brea Ave., L.A. (323) 938-1447.
The dish of seafood marinated in lime juice and vinegar is ubiquitous in Los Angeles, a star of trucks and mariscos stands, fusion sushi bars and sticky seafood restaurants. And then there's the Peruvian seviche at Mo-Chica: cubes of sushi-quality tuna in a thick vinegar emulsion sharp with chile, soft and tart and brutally spicy all at once, served with slivered red onion, a half-ear of giant-kerneled corn and a soft chunk of sweet potato. Since Nobu Matsuhisa blew into town 20-odd years ago, high-quality Peruvian seafood has not been hard to find in Los Angeles, but this is earthier, more sensual, more Peruvian, speaking as much of the mountains as of the sea. Mo-Chica, in Mercado La Paloma, 3655 S. Grand Ave., L.A. (213) 747-2141.
Banh Mi from Mr. Baguette
The famous sandwich is probably the only good thing to have come out of a century of colonialism in Vietnam: a warm, freshly baked baguette stuffed with pickled vegetables, soft liver pâté, and a deli counter's worth of sliced Vietnamese charcuterie. The sandwich adapts well to standardization. The old-line stores have premade sandwiches stacked like firewood behind the counter in anticipation of the lunch break. The new banh mi superstores have bakeries on-premises, drive-through windows, and advanced video-ordering systems — some of them sell 10,000 sandwiches every day. The Mr. Baguette stores may have all the technology of their competitors, but their sandwiches taste as if they were made by humans. Mr. Baguette makes its own high-quality ham and headcheese and steamed pork loaves, its soft, luscious pâté has a mildly gamy tang — and for a quarter extra, the sandwich comes frosted with toasted sesame seeds. Mr. Baguette, several locations, including 400 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park (626-282-9966) and 8702 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead (626-288-9166).
Animal's Foie Gras & Biscuits and Gravy
The conceit of serving foie gras with a mere fruit compote has become a little dusty as of late: all the hot chefs are serving it with eels or in jars, glazed with Coca-Cola or encased in cotton candy. The sweet taste of cruelty may be no longer enough. Animal — which already serves the liver as part of its crazed version of the Big Island drive-in classic Hawaiian concoction, loco moco — a beef patty with white rice, gravy and eggs — steps up the battle by putting its seared foie gras on top of truckstop–standard biscuits with maple-sweetened sausage gravy, and the aesthetic of fat-on-fat-on-fat is successful in ways I can't begin to understand. Animal, 435 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. (323) 782-9225.
Chichen Itza's Panuchos
Like Los Angeles, Mérida is a sprawling multicultural city, temperate in climate, geographically cut off from the rest of Mexico, whose trade ties to foreign capitals are in some ways stronger than the ones to its own. Its cooking has always resonated here — not least the panuchos: split, bean-stuffed tortillas, panfried crisp, which juxtapose the round meatiness of well-done roast pork against the slight creaminess of pureed black beans, are drizzled with citrus, and are garnished with tart, pickled onions dyed scarlet with beets. Like many cross-cultural phenomena, panuchos are best sluiced with the hottest habanero salsa you can bear. Chichen Itza, in Mercado La Paloma, 3655 S. Grand Ave., L.A. (213) 741-1075.
In the dusty sands of time, I remember pad Thai as tasty, even thrilling: stiff bundles of rice pasta slicked with orange oil, oversweetened with palm sugar, sprinkled with peanut dust and plopped on top of a mass of bean sprouts. Mmmm — peanut dust. Not so much later, I recall, a woman broke up with me because I insisted on ordering pad Thai every time we went to the old Chao Praya, citing it as proof of my severe lack of imagination. (In my defense, Chao Praya's pad Thai was an awfully good plate of noodles.) But the ultra-spicy, tamarind-soured, fish-sauce-laced house-special version at Krua Thai is about as good as pad Thai gets, a powerful dish that retains some of the exoticism bred out of it by a thousand inferior versions, sweet and squiggly and delicious, stocked with both tofu and big shrimp — the dish made vivid again after decades as a cliché. Krua Thai, 13130 Sherman Way, N. Hlywd. (818) 759-7998.
Ancient Ginger Soup at Noodle Island
"Ancient ginger" is what happens when that node you forgot to use from last week's stir-fry languishes, forgotten, beneath the garlic and onions. Ancient ginger soup is a double-strength soup zapped with this withered, magically pungent ginger, soothing and powerful — if deli chicken soup is Jewish penicillin, this stuff is Chinese Cipro. Toss in a handful of soft rice noodles and a portion of simmered chicken, cooked just to the point beyond pinkness, and you've got the only ancient Chinese secret you need. Noodle Island, 800 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel. (626) 293-8839.
MCGrath's Rainbow Chard
Chard pictures don't light up Facebook feeds, and chard discussions do not clutter the airwaves. When they come across chard in your weekly CSA box, your children are unlikely to yelp with delight — in fact, what they do say probably sounds a lot like the French word for the vegetable, which happens to be blette. Still: chard, how delicious! The organic rainbow chard from the McGrath stand at the farmers market does not have the glamour of the farm's strawberries or tomatoes, but manages to pack all the sweet earthiness of the fabled Oxnard Plain into a few square inches of leaf. McGrath Family Farms, at the Wednesday and Saturday Santa Monica Farmers Market and the Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market. mcgrathfamilyfarm.com.
Border Grill's Green Corn Tamales
Popping with freshness, soft and light as air, green corn tamales are as sure a sign of spring in Los Angeles as the traffic at Dodger Stadium. The famous green corn tamales have always been at El Cholo, but Border Grill's sleekly rustic corn-husk bundles may be even more expressive of the milky flavor of sweet corn. Border Grill, 1445 4th St., Santa Monica. (310) 451-1655.
Lupe's #2 Burrito
At the best of the old-line Los Angeles burrito stands, you will find burritos as they should be eaten: slender instead of overstuffed; ballasted with a smooth, well-oiled paste of refried beans; wrapped into a griddle-toasted tortilla; and featuring a bit of cheese or a spoonful of sauce for flavor, perhaps, or stewed chiles, or sometimes a little meat. A burrito is supposed to taste if it were made by somebody's mom. Lupe's #2 has everything you need in a burrito and nothing you do not. Lupe's #2, 4642 E. Third St., L.A. 323-266-6881.
Good Girl Dinette's Chicken PotPie
I have occasionally posited the existence of universal comfort food, dishes that would convey warmth and love and abundance as well to an Inuit as it would to a Jain, in Canada as well as in Kyrgyzstan. Then I start daydreaming about fermented mare's milk, and the afternoon goes downhill from there. But if you were going to compile such a roster, you could do worse than to include Good Girl Dinette's chicken potpie, a classically transcultural dish of yellow Vietnamese curry, peas and carrots and everything, baked under a dense, buttery biscuit crust. Good Girl Dinette, 110 N. Avenue 56, Highland Park. (323) 257-8980.
Harry's Seascape Strawberries
Harry's Berries, to the annoyance of its devotees, charges almost double what every other strawberry grower in the farmers market charges, and there are weeks when the pull of those others' hand-scrawled "Oxnard strawberries Super Sweet" signs eventually proves too strong. Oxnard is at the sweet spot for strawberries in California, and even the white-shouldered commercial stuff that makes it to stores from here to Maine is acceptable. Are the berries at Harry's this week awe-inspiring, or merely stunning? It's hard to tell — the stand enforces a no-tastes policy. But during the weeks of spring when the Seascape strawberries make it on the truck, juicy blots of red whose vividly dimensional taste makes other strawberries seem like Styrofoam packing peanuts in comparison — you're going to buy those berries. And stand in line for the privilege. And get to the market early because they may be all gone by 10. Sometimes that's just the way it is. At farmers markets.
One of the problems with compiling lists like these is the existence of chefs, definitely including Providence's Michael Cimarusti, who are so attuned to the rhythms of the seasons and the market that their menus are never in the same place twice. Unless you're talking about Cimarusti's chowda, which is first-rate, among the best in the world possibly, but we're talking about things you have to taste before you die — before you die! It's like saying, as a Dodgers fan, that you would die unfulfilled if you never saw Vicente Padilla start another game. But the sautéed squid with piquillo peppers and stewed pig's ear — that one I'd really like to taste again. I'd like to see Manny Ramirez hit a couple out this year, too. Providence, 5955 Melrose Ave., L.A. (323) 460-4170.
THE Grill on the Alley's Corned Beef Hash
The meat-and-potatoes concoction is punch line to a thousand Army jokes, and is most commonly served direct from a can of Dinty Moore. Corned beef hash is the wrong call at almost every diner you walk into. At Grill on the Alley, the Beverly Hills Industry restaurant better known as home to the egg-white omelet and the eight-figure negative pickup deal, the hash is a dream: edged with deep brown; speckled with crunchy, carbonized bits; crisp, ruddy and delightful to behold. As long as somebody else is picking up the tab, an order of hash and a pot of coffee is the grandest Depression meal in town. The Grill on the Alley, 9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 276-0615.
Kiriko's Salmon Sashimi
Salmon is not the most obvious candidate for sushi-bar glory. It is difficult to find the best fish, and you wouldn't want to eat even the finest wild king salmon raw. Salmon flesh is very expressive of its environment, which is often something you might feel is better left unexpressed. The salmon sushi is often the last one left on the nigiri platter. But Kiriko's Ken Namba is a master of salmon. And when he smokes fresh Copper River salmon over smoldering cherrywood, and wraps thick, rich slices of it around spears of dripping-ripe mango, the sashimi is soft and luscious, salty and sweet, penetratingly smoky yet delicate — one of the most magnificent mouthfuls of food imaginable. Kiriko, 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., No. 102, W.L.A. (310) 478-7769.
Maple Bacon Donut
"Home of the Maple Bacon Donut" is a slogan inscribed both on the home page of the Nickel's Web site and in the arteries of its best customers. And it is a lovely thing, warm and round and doughnutty, paved with crushed bacon, glistening with what the unimaginative might interpret as pure evil. If you look at it in a certain light, or at least the hazy rays filtering in off Main Street on a cloudy morning in June, the doughnut even seems to glow — a soft, pulsing glow like the ones you see from jellyfish under black light, or from the undersides of flying saucers in science-fiction movies. And then the person sitting across from you bites into one, and you have seen this look of bliss before: wood smoke melting into tree essence; pig fat into cooking oil; yeast into sugar, time into the smoky void. Nickel Diner, 524 S. Main St., dwntwn. (213) 623-8301.
Bay Cities' Godmother
Italian sandwiches have progressed a lot in Los Angeles in the last several decades, from the grinders at Connal's in Pasadena, to the meatball sandwiches at the wheezing Eastside Deli, to the fennel-saturated porchetta sandwiches at Mozza-2-Go, which are up to the best Florentine standard. But it occasionally feels as if the Westside would stop functioning without the doorstop known as the Godmother, which includes a slice of every Italian cold cut you've ever heard of, and a couple that might be new to you: salame, mortadella, capicola, ham, prosciutto, provolone cheese, on a chewy, foot-long, hoagie roll. Fully dressed, the Godmother includes lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, mustard, and a few squirts from unmarked squeeze bottles that probably add up to a garlicky vinaigrette. The sandwich feeds a couple of people at least, and you should probably seek intervention if you're planning to eat a large Godmother by yourself. Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery, 1517 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 395-8279.
Din Tai Fung's Soup Dumplings
The lure of the Shanghai-style soup dumpling is impossible to resist: thin-walled spheroids filled with pork, seasonings and teaspoonfuls of broth; mouthfuls of impossible juiciness; flavor-hits of a staggering intensity. Served 10 to an order in bullet-shaped aluminum steamers, the elastic soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung are engineered as carefully as iPhones. You can inspect three or four orders of soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung — and over the course of a meal, you probably will — before you find a dumpling that has breached so much as a drop of soup. Pick them up carefully, garnish simply with a shred or two of fresh ginger and a few sparing drops of black vinegar, and inhale. Din Tai Fung, 1108 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. (626) 574-7068.
The Platonic ideal of a doughnut is a plain one, fried in clean oil, subtly sweetened, tinged with vanilla, and holding its pleasant, mild crunchiness even when you dunk it into milk. It's the doughnut of swing-era diners, Homer Price's doughnut, the doughnut that won World War II. The Farmer's Market doughnut stand Bob's may sell fancy coffees now, and even fruit-flavored herb teas, but when you've got a Bob's doughnut and a cup of regular joe on your table, it might as well be 1943. Bob's Coffee & Doughnuts, Farmers Market, Third & Fairfax, L.A. (323) 933-8929.
Let’s Be Frank's Hot Dog
Could it be more disloyal to Los Angeles than to suggest that its best hot dog may be one first sold outside the home field of the hated San Francisco Giants? A hot dog sold from a truck? Yet the dogs — organic, grass-fed, sustainable, whatever — are taut, natural-skin beauties that snap like smartly hit line drives when you bite into them, tucked into griddled buns and served, if you want them that way, with grilled onions, organic sauerkraut and an occasional mystery condiment that they hide under the truck's counter like the secret stash at a comic book store. Let's Be Frank, Helms Ave., between Venice and Washington boulevards, Culver City.
Meals by Genet's Doro Wot
A dense chicken stew, complex as a Oaxacan mole, rich as butter, whose flavor seems to cut right to the Ethiopian soul, doro wot is not a quick dish: onions slowly reducing into marmalade, spices mellowing, two dozen strong-flavored ingredients subsuming their sharp notes into a harmonious if peppery whole. You can find the dish at almost every restaurant in Fairfax Avenue's Little Ethiopia. Doro wot at Meals by Genet is a serious dish, vibrating with ginger and black pepper and bishop's weed and clove but tasting of none of them, as sticky and dense as any French chef's demi-glace, so formidably solid that the chicken, which is well-cooked, becomes just another ingredient in the sauce. The chef is modest, allowing only that the stew takes her two days to prepare, but if you made doro wot like that you could afford to be modest about it, too. Meals by Genet, 1053 S. Fairfax Ave., L.A. (323) 938-9304.
Sapp Coffee Shop's Boat Noodles
The lunchtime dish is the standard stuff of any roadside stall in Thailand, but Sapp's version is brilliant, a murky, organ-rich beef soup amplified with shrieking chile heat, thickened with blood, the tartness of lime juice locked in muscular poise with the brawny muskiness of the broth, to which the slippery, flash-boiled rice noodles seem to bring at least as much texture as substance. If you enjoy wrestling with great, reeking mounds of offal, you're in exactly the right spot; if not, you can order the boat noodles with ordinary beef. Sapp Coffee Shop, 5183 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 665-1035.
If the fires are burning high and you turn up at the right time of day, the barbecued beef brisket at Bludso's can be as good as barbecue gets — less meat than a damp vapor of meat; meat you inhale so fast and so unconsciously that you barely remember you were eating meat at all. At Bludso's there is only bloodlust, smoke and salt, the need to pry the dripping brisket out of the heat-warped foam container, to feel the meat and the juice and the ribbons of fat slide down your throat like liquid, each slice generating the desire for the next, until the container is empty. At Bludso's, the only proper amount of meat is way, way too much. Bludso's B-B-Q, 811 S. Long Beach Blvd., Compton. (310) 637-1342.
Whenever Los Angeles starts to feel like the wrong sort of place — where everybody really is carrying around Eckhart Tolle paperbacks, the Bodhi Tree was the last remaining proof of civilization, and existence is circumscribed by the universe contained within Brent Bolthouse's Blackberry — it is good to remember this: In at least one part of the world, L.A. is considered to be a midsized Korean city whose culinary specialty involves a special crosswise way of cutting shortribs. Now we can all relate to the way people in Parma feel about the cheese. L.A. galbi is available pretty much anywhere, but as with so many things having to do with Korean barbecue, you may as well go to Park's. Park's BBQ, 955 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown. (213) 380-1717.
Are we traditionalists? Perhaps we're traditionalists. Because as many advantages as there are to ordering dim sum from the little tick-off menus that have become standard at a lot of the newer Hong Kong-style seafood houses, we really prefer to get dim sum from rolling carts. I know the food tends to be slightly less long out of the kitchen, that it's the only way a non-Chinese is going to get to the chicken blood, and that you don't end up stuffing yourself with meatballs and bao while waiting for the roast duck to show up when you order from menus, but on a Saturday morning, immediacy is paramount. At Capital, you can even get steaming hot sweet almond milk off of carts, dosed with gingko nuts and topped with proud domes of golden puff pastry. Capital Seafood Restaurant, 755 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park. (626) 282-3318.
Fresh Japanese wasabi grated on sharkskin. Microscopically serrated cucumber. Chef-pickled ginger. Fan-cooled rice. Great sushi is in the details as much as it is in the fish. In Kiyokawa, as in so many great sushi restaurants, the creativity is at its most focused in the sashimi course, arranged carefully as a rock garden in a crystal bowl of ice: thinly sliced halibut folded into the shape of a fragile white rose; tiny lozenges of Spanish mackerel from Japan; fresh California abalone; an exquisitely fresh sardine. If you are not squeamish, there may be a Santa Barbara prawn, recently separated from its all-too-living head, whose sweet flesh pops in your mouth like segments of ripe grapefruit. Kiyokawa, 265 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 358-1900.
Chung King's Chongqing Fried Chicken
This fried chicken dish is the red of silk pajamas, the red of firecrackers, the red of the Chinese flag, a knoll of crunchy dark-meat cubes dusted with Sichuan pepper and awesome quantities of salt, subsumed under a blizzard of fried chiles. If you wanted to represent pure dynamite in the form of a plate of food, it probably would look a lot like Chung King's chicken. Even children who have never experienced anything spicier than a bowl of Apple Jacks, instinctively know to stay away from this dish. My daughter took one look at the chicken and burst into tears. I rather like Chung King. She calls it the Worst Restaurant in the World. Chung King, 1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel. (626) 286-0298.
Peruvian Roast Chicken
The first thing you notice about Pollo a la Brasa is the wood-smoke, great billowing draughts that perfume downwind noodle shops and coffee bars, and then the towers of split logs that make the wood-smoke possible. This cannot be the favorite restaurant of the Air Quality Management District. And the chicken, flavored with garlic and black oregano and roasted on a vast, flame-licked apparatus, is remarkable, well-garlicked, slightly spicy, marked with pungent smoke, caramelized and crisp, clearly the marriage of a chicken and a bunch of logs. Pollo a la Brasa, 764 S. Western Ave., Koreatown. (213) 382-4090.
What do Jamaicans eat when they think nobody's looking? Sprats, which is to say whole little herring, bristling with bones, that have been marinated briefly in vinegar, fried to the brittle-chewy consistency of beef jerky, and garnished with a few slivers of onion and crimson shreds of fresh scotch bonnet, a pepper whose pungent, fruity heat punches through the limits of human tolerance. The fried sprats are tasty if you are not averse to the idea of strong-tasting fish, and the tiny bones go down easily enough. It is easy to see how sprats may not have the universal appeal of jerk chicken. It is also easy to see how some people (me, for example) like to toss the things down like potato chips. Natraliart, 3426 W. Washington Blvd., L.A. (323) 732-8865.
Hungry Cat's Lobster Roll
If you prize your sanity, try not to bring up the subject of lobster rolls with a New England native. Before you manage to edge away, you will be apprised as to how long the lobster must be boiled, how coarsely it must be chopped, and the exact brand of mayonnaise essential to the end result. You will also probably hear a dissertation on the top-loading hot-dog bun that will turn your knees to water. But when you taste the lobster roll at Hungry Cat, a first-class seafood restaurant near the corner of Sunset and Vine, a buttery, abstracted rendition of the New England beach-shack standard transformed into a split, crisp, rectangular object about the size of a Twinkie, you may be persuaded that the lobster roll is worth the fuss. In Maine, the $20-plus it costs would buy you a lobster the size of a small pony. But we are in Hollywood, where the next acceptable lobster roll may be 2,800 miles away. Hungry Cat, 1535 N. Vine St., Hlywd. (323) 462-2155.
They have maple. And bacon. They're reasonably flaky, with a deftness one doesn't often see in things of this sort. Zoe Nathan is stepping up as the pastry chef of her generation in Los Angeles, coming out of a time and place where every apple tart was rustic, every croissant unglazed, every fruit from the farmers market, every pastry dashed with an appropriate lick of salt. And did I mention the bacon? Huckleberry, 1014 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 451-2311.
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