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.
The modern Asian restaurant has been done so badly so often that it's beyond refreshing to see it done well – in fact, it's almost a revelation. Indeed, with Lukshon, chef/owner Sang Yoon has basically perfected the concept, as long as you're willing to buy into his vision wholeheartedly. Located in the Helms Bakery complex next to his beer bar, Father's Office, and across the way from his coming food hall/bakery project with Sherry Yard, Lukshon is one man's singular vision of what a restaurant should be, and that man doesn't really care if you concur or not. Thankfully, we fully concur. It's hard to get in a visit without succumbing to longtime favorite dishes like the outstanding dan dan noodles, which sizzle with Sichuan peppercorns and pack a savory wallop of sesame and peanuts; or the gooey Chinese eggplant, slathered with fennel raita and tomato sambal. Raw fish dishes, such as fluke sashimi with black sesame oil, spicy avocado and pickled orange, or the gorgeous, glossy Hawaiian butterfish, cannot be oversold. The food is highly flavored, there are no substitutions or modifications, children are discouraged, and the wine list is built for food, not name recognition (it's actually one of the best lists in the city if you're willing to give yourself over to it, and incredibly well-priced to boot). Timid palates and sticklers for the customer-is-always-right mantra probably ought to stay away. That's all right. More room for the rest of us. 3239 Helms Ave, Culver City; (310) 202-6808.
2. Chengdu Taste
Shortly after the Sichuan restaurant Chengdu Taste opened in 2013, long lines began forming on the sidewalk outside, making that stretch of the concrete universe on Valley Boulevard seem like the unlikely home of a pop-up concert or a pot shop. Nope, just hungry people waiting for a bowl of the pragmatically named “numb taste” wontons or a plate of the stunningly good “toothpick lamb,” which is just as pragmatically named and which you can see on pretty much every table in the place, making you also wonder whose job it is to skewer tiny bits of lamb with toothpicks day after day. Thank God somebody does it, as the dishes here are worth the inevitable wait. Which is to say that the lines have not perceptibly diminished – if anything, they've gotten longer. Is it worth the hype? Absolutely. For the wontons and the lamb, and also for the dan dan mian and the plates of fish, even the simple dish of spicy cooked cabbage. This is terrific food, done in the manner of Chongqing, sometimes lighter and milder than you'd expect at other SGV Sichuan palaces, but then sometimes not. Bring a book and maybe a lawn chair. And yes, order the rabbit with “younger sister's secret recipe.” Would that Chengdu Taste wrote everybody's menu. 828 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra; (626) 588-2284.
1. Night + Market
Talk to any 10 food obsessives in L.A. and approximately eight of them are likely to name Night + Market as their favorite restaurant. This goes for chefs and civilians, culinary explorers and trend followers alike. Chef Kris Yenbamroong presents the unadulterated flavors of Northern Thailand in a stylishly stripped-down room next to his parents' Sunset Strip restaurant. The whole thing feels kind of like a fluke, or a high school project titled “restaurant” – until you get to the food, which is bold, complex, spicy and completely addictive. You'll find yourself wolfing down sticky pig's tails, tongue-singing larb, funky fermented pork sausage, or a hulking whole braised pork hock in aromatic juices. Yenbamroong is about to open his second outpost in Silver Lake, which promises to be a slightly different beast, though no less exciting. In fact, the Night + Market story, as well as its food, is one of the best examples of why eating in L.A. right now is nothing short of thrilling. 9041 Sunset Blvd. West Hollywood; (310) 275-9724.