View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "99 Essential Restaurants 2010."
When is a restaurant not a restaurant? It's not a rhetorical question, actually, not this year. I really don't know. Because just as parts of Los Angeles have become familiar, through the miracle of film, as suburban Connecticut, the African jungle, Gotham City and a Korean battlefield circa 1954, to the point that it is impossible to go to the actual DMZ and not be a little disappointed that it doesn't look enough like the Malibu hills, some of the most interesting Los Angeles restaurants at the moment are as illusory as light on a screen.
Glazed pork-belly adobo for lunch? Check your Twitter feed. The truck that serves it may be around the corner or it may be two counties away. The cocktailian whose mezcal drinks you crave shifts venues more often than an NBA team on the road. Restlessness has long been a local characteristic, and we were famous for drive-ins, dine-and-dash hash houses and takeout windows long before the advent of tapas trucks and pedal-powered popsicle carts.
The best enchiladas I've ever tasted were made by a woman whose makeshift stand occasionally pops up around the corner from a more established stand whose location I can never quite figure out. The most celebrated young chef in Los Angeles imports his restaurant into a different kitchen every couple of months, like a soufflé-happy hermit crab inhabiting a new shell. At one of the most popular new places in town, your dinner may be prepared one night by one of the most famous chefs in Mexico; the next by a moonlighting lackey from a place you wouldn't eat at with somebody else's mouth.
Is the restaurant the empty taqueria where the cook watches Lucha Libre between customers, or is it that taqueria's truck out in the parking lot, with lines stretching down the block? Is reality the hamachi with pig's foot that you eat at a famous restaurant, or is it that same hamachi with pig's foot handed over with a smile at a charity benefit buffet?
The mantra of Local, Seasonal, Sustainable, Organic has become so persistent in Los Angeles, and the crush of chefs at the farmers market is so pervasive, that the menus at some restaurants seem almost identical to one another at certain times of the year, and completely different from their own menus in spring. Heraclitus once wrote that it is impossible to step in the same river twice. In Los Angeles, it can be nearly impossible to eat in the same restaurant twice.
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This is, I believe, what the economists call creative destruction. And it is not impossible here to experience extremes — restaurants that are born and die in a single evening; restaurants in suburbs so distant that they may as well be theoretical; restaurants so hard to get into that they may not actually exist outside of blogs.
Los Angeles is where the modern restaurant was born, the good, the bad and the ugly of it, and we're too far gone to stop now.
Click on the restaurant names below for new reviews and locations for this year's Essential 99:
Beacon: An Asian Café
El Huarache Azteca
Euro Pane Bakery
Good Girl Dinette
The Grill on the Alley
The Hungry Cat
La Casita Mexicana
Lazy Ox Canteen
Meals by Genet
Musso & Frank Grill
Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa
101 Noodle Express
Palate Food + Wine
Sapp Coffee Shop
Tacos Baja Ensenada
The Tasting Kitchen
Waterloo & City