First of all, there is absolutely nothing wrong with liking, loving, even obsessing over childhood favorites – hello, Kraft macaroni and cheese. Sometimes, nothing tastes better than a Rice Krispie treat, even laden with margarine and jet-puffed miniature marshmallows (although salted, browned butter is nice). A trip down culinary memory lane can be weirdly satisfying.
But sometimes, a little updating, better ingredients and the right substitution or two can transform dishes of humble origin from frumpy to stunning. Elevating the ingredients goes a long way in taking something that appeals to the lowest common denominator — sprinkles! Pink icing! Cartoon characters on the package! — and turning it into something that even the staunchest foodie can appreciate.
The nostalgia factor is most definitely at work as well. As an adult, biting into a food memory can sometimes be a letdown, the chemical tastes dominating in ways they did not when you were five. Many foods just don’t live up to their reputation. But taking a bite of an amped-up version of a childhood staple can bring back that feeling of awe – the awe of your first taste of something that really blew your mind.
10. Cheesy Tater Tots at Umami Burger
Ordering off the menu at Umami is a great way to conjure up that adolescent rush of knowing something other people don't. Just mention the cheesy tater tots to your server — and the trio of dipping sauces available — and they'll bring them to you. No secret words or handshakes necessary. The tater tots are so far ahead of the frozen variety common to school cafeterias that you'll probably have to fight with whomever you're supposed to share them with. Order two. Crisped up and soft in the center, gooey with beer cheddar and Parmesan, the potato makes a perfect little sponge to sop up the jalapeño ranch, garlic aioli and diablo sauces. Also off the menu, the spicy bird turkey burger, so scrumptious, you may just forget it’s turkey. 12159 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; 818-286-9004.
9. Strawberry Shortcake Bar at Milk
Remember buying a strawberry shortcake bar off an ice cream truck? According to the Good Humor website, those things consist of a “cake-coated artificially flavored vanilla light ice cream and a strawberry center.” Note: This is “not a light food.” Milk, this town's decadent ice cream and dessert cafe, takes it to the next level times one thousand with their upscale version of the classic treat. Milk’s version, a gigantic, rectangular portion of homemade strawberry ice cream, coated in pink white chocolate and rolled in toasted almond crumble shortcake, is definitely not “a light food.” 7290 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-939-6455.
8. Frito Mac and Cheese at Plan Check Kitchen + Bar
Loaded with childhood favorites transformed, from the beer float to the spicy Sriracha pickles, Plan Check Kitchen + Bar will most certainly placate your inner child. The restaurant really amps it up with chef Ernesto Uchimura’s Frito mac and cheese pie — the mixture of Americanized dashi cheese topped with housemade chorizo chili, jalapeños, and Frito chips rewrites the genre. The Fifth Taste beer float is equally impressive, blending an espresso stout with a candy cap mushroom, buffalo trace-infused ice cream. Rich and deeply satisfying, it's the perfect hybrid of a soda shop standard and a pub favorite. 1800 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles; 310-288-6500.
7. Pop Tarts and Ding Dongs at Nickel Diner
The idea of true, homemade Pop Tarts and Ding Dongs is almost too good to be true – kind of like jet packs. But chef Monica May and co-owner Kristen Trattner created their own vision of the future that manifests, according to May, “all of my childhood favorites.” The Ding Dongs are a rich, chocolate, devil’s food cake — mayo is the secret ingredient, for added moistness. The Pop Tarts, oh the Pop Tarts. There are four different kinds, filled with varying, seasonal, house-made jams. At the moment, May’s favorite is made from fresh cheriums, cherry-plum hybrids bought at the Arnett Farms’ stall at the nearby farmers market. The result is sweet, fragrant and unputdownable. 524 S. Main St., Los Angeles; 213-623-8301.
6. Cotton Candy and Lobster Pop Tarts at Barton G.
Lobster pop tarts made the list because, well, how could they not? The flaky crust is stuffed with lobster and gruyere, complemented by a trio of sauces: Cajun lime remoulade, tarragon aioli and hollandaise. Barton G. goes beyond a mere token childhood nostalgia, showcasing other favorites as well — inclusing lobster truffle mac and cheese, and outrageous cotton candy and funnel cakes. Embrace the carnival. 861 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; 310-388-1888.
5. Sno Balls at Playa Provisions
The funfetti sno balls at Playa Provisions play on a couple of childhood delights to perfection. The spherical cake, blanketed in white coconut frosting really does bring actual snowballs to mind while conjuring the shocking pink Hostess cakes of yore. However, funfetti is also on the table as an influence; the small confections come shot through with colorful sprinkles. The function and form come together perfectly in these buttery, adorable snacks. Playa also piques your childlike wonder with shark attack cupcakes, a ridiculous baked Alaska and Nutella & banana stuffed French toast. 119 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey; 310-683-5019.
4. Whoopie Pie at Magnolia Bakery
A dessert emporium that brings to mind a childhood that you probably never got to experience — except in some nostalgic parallel universe, like in Pleasantville — Magnolia Bakery gets all the details right, from the pastel colors to the checkerboard floor. It’s hard to be in a bad mood with dozens of baked goods, such as PB & J cupcakes, confronting you. The whoopie cookies, a variation on the whoopie pie made from two soft, chewy brown sugar cookies sandwiching a generous amount of maple cream cheese filling, are pure delight. 8389 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; 323-951-0636.
3. Sno-Cones at Chaya Downtown
At least half the fun of consuming sno-cones comes from the simple pleasure of the paper cup they're served in. Chaya delivers on the packaging and the product by dousing the ice with a healthy dose of Bacardi Rum, for $6 a pop. These treats are served in their summer beer garden, on weekdays from 4 to 10 p.m., along with items from the grill such baked oyster and scallop “Sriracha dote-yaki.” The sno-cone mixes are made in-house, with a trio of flavors on offer: mango, cherry (with ginger and yuzu sake) and Calpico (a yogurt soft drink). The juices are all fresh and the flavors bright and refreshing. 525 S. Flower St., Los Angeles; 213-236-9577.
2. French Fries at Republique
There are many terrific things to be had at Republique — the white salad with hazelnuts and hearts of palm, for example, or the Dover sole a la meunière — but maybe the very best item, the one that'll rocket you back to youth, is the french fries. With animal fat back in fashion (will McDonald’s have to change its own potatoes back after going veggie in 2002?), this bistro goes whole cow, deep-frying their fries in beef tallow augmented with peanut oil. Crisp, brown and paired with a side of tarragon béarnaise, these french fries will make you remember when you fought your siblings for every last crunchy bite. 624 S. La Brea Blvd., Los Angeles; 310-362-6115.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
1. Drunken Girl Scout Milkshake at Short Order
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you took the Girl Scouts’ glorious Thin Mint cookies and turned them into a boozy milkshake? Apparently Josh Goldman and Julian Cox meditated on just such a possibility — and blended it into food-lover’s gold. Short Order’s Drunken Girl Scout milkshake mixes the cookies with ice cream, whiskey, Fernet Branca Menta and crème de menthe for an extremely grown-up take on an American original. The restaurant also serves corn pups and filet o’ fish, if you want to take your regression to its logical completion. 633 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; 323-761-7970.