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The 10 Best Dishes of 2010

Bloody clam ceviche
PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN

View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "The 10 Best Dishes of 2010."

CAPPUCCINO

When it comes to dinner, some of us are game for anything. But in the mornings, still reeling from the shock of recent consciousness, we tend to stick to what we know. There is a comfort in the same cappuccino pulled by the same barista in the same coffeehouse surrounded by the same people every morning that surpasses the sometimes oppressive weight of routine. So it is with a heavy heart that I admit that the cappuccino at Intelligentsia is not just better than other cappuccinos in town, but so much better that it may as well be another species of caffeine altogether: dense, intensely fragrant, capped with foam so intricately calibrated that it makes nonfat milk seem rich as heavy cream. If you're a pretty girl, they'll even draw a heart on it for you. Awww. 55 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 578-1270.

SHORT RIB IN FIG LEAVES

In the short, happy life of the Test Kitchen, the just-deceased recital hall for chefs, there were many dishes that might have qualified as among the best of the year, including John Sedlar's stuffed lipstick peppers in a beet jus with rose petals, a poem in crimson that had the jangly perfection of an early Phil Spector production. Chefs seemed inspired by the place — there was little of the rote luxury you see at other rotating venues, including even the James Beard House in New York. But nothing came close to the Los Angeles debut of Javier Plascencia, who is transforming the way Mexico eats from the unlikely base of Tijuana. His short rib, wrapped in fig leaves and roasted over wood, was astonishing: The sweet, charred fragrance that floated from the meat when you unwrapped the package was intoxicating as perfume, and the few drops of black, bitter mole on the plate, flavored with raw cacao, tasted like all of Mexico distilled into a fluid more precious than gold.

PASILLA CHILE SOUP WITH CHICHARRONES

Joseph Centeno has been knocking around Los Angeles for years, lending his knack for lacing familiar flavors with hard-core chef's jollies to everything from postmodern tapas bars to Pasadena tearooms, leaving half his customers delirious and the other half just confused. At Lazy Ox Canteen, he seems at long last to have found his home. A lot of people are doing the nose-to-tail thing at the moment, but his take here is a bit left of center, not just the expected chicken liver or oxtail but pork rillettes studded with lardons of fried pork belly; braised flatiron with kumquats; and chewy, puffy chicharrones of fried pig's ear. The restaurant's best dish may be the deep-flavored purée of pasilla chiles peppered with a handful of crunchy pork rinds that melt into and enrich the soup — pure, elemental cooking at its best. 241 S. San Pedro St., Little Tokyo. (213) 626-5299.

POACHED EGG, WITH RICE VELOUTE AND CHRISTMAS OIL

One never knows quite what to expect from LudoBites, except that the announcement of each new location of the pop-up restaurant will crash every reservations system on the planet. LudoBites is restaurant translated into pure id, the inchoate and yet marvelous construct of its maestro, Ludovic Lefebvre, and the second Lefebvre begins to suspect that the public likes a particular dish too much, he begins to feel like a wretched commis doomed to make nothing but sole meunière, and plucks it from his menu. So I suspect we'll never see this dish again, but toward the end of his fall run, he served a poached egg in a rice-thickened broth slashed with brilliant-green "Christmas oil," a sharp, resinous emulsion distilled from a branch he chopped from the tree in his own living room. ludobites.com.

HOT BUTTERED KIMCHI BOWL

Is this the year of metacuisine? I believe it must be, with flavors and expectations and ethnic paradigms folded over themselves like picture planes in a David Choe painting: food about food about food. And if this moment has a master, it is probably Roy Choi, of Kogi, Chego and A-Frame, whose weighty, baroque constructions splice all the flavors of the city into great splooshes of combinatorial DNA. What is Choi's dish for the ages? Possibly Chego's Hot Buttered Kimchi Chow, a multifaceted, soulful thing, utterly un-Korean in concept but Korean to its core: kimchi tossed with buttered rice, edamame, pungent gaenip, crumbled pork rinds, tofu and the omnipresent fried egg, a dish that tastes like every element of a 1 a.m. Korean meal compressed into a single bowl. 3300 Overland Ave., W.L.A. (310) 287-0337.

DUCK CARNITAS

It had to happen; really it did. Because if you think about it, duck carnitas is almost inevitable, a sort of Mexican confit: duck meat simmered in perfumed fat until it becomes soft as a lover's kiss, until it is difficult to discern the medium from the product being cooked. If life were fair, you would be able to get duck carnitas from every respectable taco truck on the Eastside. Instead, it is necessary to come to Cacao Mexicatessen. If you thought of the duck carnitas as Mexican rillettes, you could happily smear it on a bit of toasted baguette and eat it with mustard and coarse salt. As it is, the duck carnitas makes a splendid taco filling. 1576 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock. (323) 478-2791, cacaodeli.com.

BLOODY CLAM CEVICHE

Have you tasted bloody clams? Because they really are worth eating: chewy, plump things about the size of a half-dollar, oozing dark juices from inside their rough, crenellated shells, tasting something like shellfish fortified with strong beef bouillon. Bloody clams, a specialty of the Guatemalan café La Cevicheria, may be at their very best chopped into a ceviche, moistened with chile and citrus and Worcestershire sauce, a tonic all animal vitality, sweet ocean and life. 3809 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (323) 732-1253.

TONKOTSU RAMEN

This has been a year that the Los Angeles ramen cult will cherish for decades, a year when half a dozen fine noodle shops opened, when the lowly street noodle finally reached the status of more exalted specialties like sashimi and robata-yaki. Best of all may have been Jinya, whose operation was imported straight from Tokyo — its long, springy noodles soak up just enough broth to become saturated, yet retain a wheaty integrity of their own. And best of all at Jinya is an odd, strong-smelling tonkotsu ramen whose intense pork broth is pumped up with industrial quantities of dashi and dried fish, a broth on steroids, a broth that seemed to be trying to establish a world record for umami concentration. Can tongues pant? After a few bites, you may feel as if yours had just run a half-marathon without bothering to notify the rest of your head. 11239 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 980-3977, jinya-la.com/ramen.

BACON-WRAPPED BACON

What leads a man to wrap bacon around bacon? Is it a short step to those 93,000-calorie meat bombs that fascinate the interwebs? Yet at Fig, a hotel restaurant otherwise dedicated to the glory of California produce, it almost seems like a good idea, a thick, braised slab of belly fat, sweetly smoke-pungent and soft as a gentle sigh. The second bacon, encasing its brother in a mummy wrap, is crisp and thin, a bacon of texture as opposed to a bacon of substance, likely to shatter at the touch of a fork. If Alain Ducasse spent a few shifts behind the griddle at a Denny's, something like bacon-wrapped bacon would be the result. If you have ever wished that bacon could be liquid and crunchy at the same time, this is the bacon for you. In the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, 101 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 319-3111, figsantamonica.com.

VAMPIRO

A lot of Angelenos first tasted this supreme example of Eastside street food ... in Beverly Hills, where blogger Bill Esparza had recruited the stand that may or may not have been called Tacos Guanajuato for the local food festival. And the magnetic pull of those vampiros — crisp tortillas blanketed in molten toasted cheese before they were dressed out as tacos; gooey, salty, spicy and crunchy — was enough to propel even Westsiders to the Boyle Heights Catholic school that let them set up their tables on the grounds. Squid Ink's Robin Brown tells us that the entire stand was stolen, which means no more vampiros for the moment. Ars longa, vampiros brevis, I guess.