Dear Mr. Gold:
I was in Rome a few months ago and an Italian friend took me out to a great neighborhood pizzeria/ristorante (Pizzeria San Marco). The place was off the tourist trail, not in any guidebooks, but packed with locals, the essence of Rome. Now my friend will be visiting Los Angeles and I’d love to take him out for a similar dining experience. Which restaurant that would be quintessentially Los Angeles and yet totally free of any tourists would you recommend?
Actually, Pizzeria San Marco is in pretty much every guidebook — I submit you’d have been better off at San Remo, my favorite, in the Testaccio neighborhood — although you’re right: The fanny-pack set and the youth-hostel crowd do seem to pass it by, probably because their well-thumbed copies of Lets Go: Europe call it only the second-best pizza in Rome. Sometimes the alleys of Trastevere are just squiggly enough.
But I digress. Many kinds of quintessential Los Angeles experiences can be had in restaurants, and at some of them — I’m thinking of the Ivy — the presence of awed tourists is even key. The Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood is an establishment imaginable nowhere else, with a faded mural from the teens, a menu whose development stopped sometime in the early ’20s, a clientele that includes at almost all times recognizable character actors, and molecules from Faulkner’s exploded liver still floating in the air. Sit at the counter for an early supper, have whatever the daily special is, a Caesar salad and three martinis. The Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills is a bit on the pricey side, but the corned beef hash and rice pudding are epochal, and the lunch crowd (although they are eating whatever their latest doctor says they should be eating instead) still controls a huge swath of what they still refer to as This Town.
If what you are looking for is breathtakingly good food in breathtakingly casual surroundings, try the organ-intensive boat noodle soup or the tamer jade noodles at the Thaitown lunchroom Sapp Coffee Shop — food-world heavies like Mario Batali, Tony Bourdain and David Chang plotz over the joint, yet you are likely to be the only non-Thais in the restaurant, and you are unlikely to spend more than $7 or $8 apiece for lunch. If food isn’t the main criterion, you might want to check out one of the restaurants on the top floor of El Mercado on First at Lorena in East L.A. — there are many, many better places to eat Mexican food in this part of town, but after a carnitas plate, a fistful of Modelo Especials and an hour of music from the two or three mariachi bands that often play at the same time, you are unlikely to care.
But what is quintessentially Angeleno at this exact moment? Mobile eating, I think. Take your friend late at night to the concentration of stalls that gathers in a bank parking lot on Breed Street just north of Caesar Chavez in Boyle Heights. I’m partial to the quesadilla vendor, but the tacos de canasta cart is pretty good, the barbacoa stall is more than passable, and the Pueblo-style cemitas table is worth trying. Sign up for Kogi’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/kogibbq/, pick up a six-pack, and stand in a happy, fast-moving line for Korean tacos quesadillas: It’s a party on wheels. While you’re at it, sign up for the Twitter feed of the brand-new Border Grill truck, whose sizzling fish tacos and fresh cajeta-stuffed churros are helping to redefine the genre: https://twitter.com/bordergrill/.