For years, the Tom Bradley international terminal at LAX was an awfully shabby place from which to depart the United States. The terminal paled in comparison to the international areas at many of the world's big airports. There was food and shopping, of course, but not much worth getting excited about.
The recent (and ongoing) revamp of the terminal has changed some of that. The parts of Tom Bradley that have been completed certainly look impressive. There are soaring ceilings, giant walls made out of screens with all kinds of artsy projections, plenty of designer shops and a ton of new food offerings.
In fact, there are so many food offerings, you could spend the better part of a day there, eating around the terminal. On my way out of the country a few weeks ago, I did just that in an attempt to determine your best bet.
A lot of familiar names are on display in the new terminal. Both Umami Burger and 800 Degrees have outposts in the food court section. There's a Chaya, a Border Grill and a Larder at Tavern from Suzanne Goin. There's also a Lucky Fish from Sushi Roku on the upper mezzanine.
Probably the most lavish offering is Petrossian's Champagne and caviar bar, which is just what it sounds like: a place where you can sit at the bar and drink Champagne and eat caviar before jetting off to whatever fabulous location people who eat caviar at the airport go to. It's a supremely fun thing to do, mainly because of its decadence. But it's also very expensive. So while I loved the basic, three-salami charcuterie plate we got for $26, and the blini with caviar for $19, both basically qualified as a tasty but very pricey snack. Fun, unless you're hungry. (The place also sells caviar-based picnics to take onboard, priced from $125 to ... gulp ... $1,582.)
I had high hopes for Lucky Fish. While cheap sushi is a staple of most airports these days, it's harder to find quality sushi. But Lucky Fish sat somewhere in between — limited selection, OK quality. It was more like the sushi restaurant you'd find in a midsized Midwestern city than a high-end L.A. sushi bar. In some ways, I'd prefer the regular crappy airport sushi I'm accustomed to.
Larder at Tavern does the smart thing by just offering a better version of the airport sandwich shop. It's likely your best bet for breakfast, serving fresh breakfast sandwiches and fantastic pastries. At dinner, the salads and sandwiches are appealing but not that exciting, though the option to buy and drink a good bottle of wine while you dine is certainly welcome.
Some of the outlets do a great job replicating their food at the airport — not surprisingly, 800 Degrees and Umami Burger turn out food very much like what you'd get at their locations in the city, though the burgers at Umami aren't quite as bouncy as I've had elsewhere. But if you're fans of those spots, the airport versions won't let you down.
I can't say the same for the Border Grill experience I had at LAX, unfortunately. While I'm consistently impressed by the quality and flavor of the food at the Border Grill downtown, what I got at the airport was pretty disappointing. Tortilla soup was kind of like mildly spicy salt soup — there was no tortilla flavor to speak of at all. The tacos were bland. The margarita I got was so sweet and artificial-tasting it was basically undrinkable.
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SHOW ME HOW
So, what's the best thing to eat at Tom Bradley? For the taste, value and interest, I'm going to have to go with ink.sack, Michael Voltaggio's sandwich shop. It's a shorter menu than the Melrose Avenue location, but the choices are far more interesting than much of what's on offer elsewhere in the terminal, just as cheap, and the ingredients used are obviously high quality. The gravlax sandwich — a favorite at the other location — was just as good here, with smoked salmon, beautiful tomatoes, pickled onions and crusty bread.
While waiting for my sandwich at ink.sack, I asked the woman behind the counter about the most popular restaurant in the new terminal. "Panda Express," she said, nodding toward the line snaking its way around the food court. "Every day, no matter what time, that's the thing people line up for. Even with all these great new options, people still mainly just want orange chicken with bacon."