Our 99 Essential Restaurants issue came out earlier this month. In celebration, we're highlighting some of the spots for their special attributes. Today: Spicy food!
So much of the essential eating in Los Angeles leaves a pleasant burn on the tongue. Be it Northern Thai, Chinese or Korean, we have a world of fantastic spicy food in this city. So grab a hankie to sop your sweaty brow and turn the page for five essential spots that turn up the heat.
5. Beverly Soon Tofu
Monica Lee's tofu shop, Beverly Soon Tofu, has been open for a long time - longer than Koreatown's culinary renaissance, longer than K-pop, probably longer than you've been eating bibimbap or, depending on your age, solid food of any kind. In fact, Lee has been serving soon tofu since 1986, originally in her first shop on Beverly Boulevard (hence the name), and for the last 26 years on Olympic in Koreatown. Soon tofu is soft tofu, and Lee serves hers in many iterations, loaded into bubbling cauldrons, in dangerous-looking spicy broth, with clams and oysters, with kimchi or meats, or studded with vegetables and cod roe. The tofu soup comes to your table literally bubbling, in black metal pots that could have been lifted from the set of a Harry Potter film. In fact, the whole restaurant seems like a witch's hut, with long, communal tables built from thick wooden planks and thatched eves supported by wooden poles on the walls - not to mention all those spitting cauldrons. Once you get past the awesome spectacle of the tofu, you should remember that the galbi is excellent, as is the stone-plate bibimbap, which happily sizzles in its medieval-looking receptacle. If you have set-designer friends, bring them with you - they'll love the decor, and you'll probably need help eating all that food. 2717 W. Olympic Blvd., #108, Koreatown; (213) 380-1113.
4. Spicy BBQ
All diehard Thai food lovers wind up at Spicy BBQ, because in this tiny restaurant they can get genuine Northern Thai dishes. Chef Nong goes to her native Chiang Mai to bring back ingredients that she can't find here, among them the powder and paste needed for the aromatic Northern curry hunglay, a dish not widely available in Los Angeles. It's made with pork belly and a raft of seasonings including pickled garlic, tamarind, dry Thai chiles, palm sugar, ginger and peanuts. You also must taste her khao soi, a soupy curry that crept over the Thai border from Burma. On the menu it's called "Northern Thai egg noodle," which doesn't reveal that it contains chicken as well as both boiled and fried noodles. Other must-haves are Northern sausages, green papaya salad, crispy fish, larb and, if you really want to get into the cuisine, fiery serrano chile and ground-pork dips. The spicy jackfruit is amazing, too, if you can take the heat. And you mustn't miss the namesake spicy BBQ pork. It's sweet, crunchy and irresistible. 5101 Santa Monica Blvd., East Hlywd; (323) 663-4211.