The geographic area this list covers is admittedly huge, but we wanted to celebrate the vast diversity of a region that often flies under the radar. Mining this year's Best of L.A. issue, which focuses on the must-visit destinations in 28 L.A. neighborhoods, we selected 12 places to eat (well, 13, as you'll see below) that represent the best food you can find in the southern half of Los Angeles County, from seafood to tacos to burgers to an ongoing pizza party. And be sure to get to Ports O' Call quickly — it might be shutting down soon.
There's been some debate and consternation over the fate of Coni'Seafood since chef Sergio Peñuelas left, but we're here to tell you there's nothing to fear. Left in the hands of owners Vicente Cossio and his daughter Connie Cossio, the restaurant is still turning out some of the best Mexican seafood in town. It's not surprising — Vicente Cossio was the originator of almost all of the dishes that garnered Coni'Seafood so much attention in the first place. There are all manner of cocteles, such as the ceviche marinero, a jumble of shrimp marinated in lemon, cucumber, cilantro and tomato, topped with hunks of sweet mango and bathed in a wicked, dusky “black sauce.” Then there are the camarones, giant, head-on shrimp that come in many different variations of sauce: diablo for the spice lovers; borrachos — in a broth made from tequila, lime, cilantro and crushed peppers — for the hungover. And yes, you can still get the pescado zarandeado, the whole split, grilled, tender white fish that came to be Coni'Seafood's signature dish. And yes, it's still as thrillingly delicious as ever. —Besha Rodell
3544 W. Imperial Highway, Inglewood; (310) 672-2339.
Banadir Somali Restaurant
The only dedicated Somali eatery around L.A., Banadir Somali Restaurant occupies an old stucco building along a secondary street in Inglewood. Unlike the food of its Horn of Africa neighbor, Ethiopia, the cuisine of Somalia is meat-intensive. This means chicken, beef and especially goat. Goat is the star here, served braised, pressure-cooked or in a soup. The first two preparations are accompanied by flavorful basmati rice or dished over thin spaghetti, a carryover from Italian colonization. At breakfast, the meat is served with anjero, a flatbread similar to Ethiopian injera. All meals are served with a banana, which you eat with your meal, not before or after. And to drink, you should order Somali tea, like chai minus the milk. —Jim Thurman
137 W. Arbor Vitae St., Inglewood; (310) 419-9900.
From Grand Central Market to the Santa Monica Food Truck Lot to Smorgasburg, Los Angeles has always found a way to assemble a curated crop of upstart food concepts in one simple location. SteelCraft takes that tradition one step further. A new-wave food court that has few local precedents in design and scope, SteelCraft used nothing but a few metal shipping containers and an acre of Astroturf to turn a former dirt patch in suburban Bixby Knolls into a permanent home for eight food and drink vendors, including East Hollywood's Neapolitan pizza stars DeSano and Torrance's award-winning Smog City Brewery. A third-wave coffee counter and a shaved-ice shack are accessible from the curb; a cozy outdoor dining space is lined with stalls selling neighborhood rarities such as bacon-jam burgers (Pig Pen Delicacy), sugary pastries (Waffle Love), ramen (Tajima) and more. —Sarah Bennett
3768 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach; steelcraftlb.com.
The best part about the Beer Belly in downtown Long Beach isn't the sudden south-county availability of the decadent Death by Duck fries, or even the location's addition of an equally indulgent brunch menu, something the original Beer Belly in Koreatown could never churn out of its tiny kitchen. It's something much more simple: the beer. Beyond the artery-clogging art of chef Wes Lieberher (a lure, to be sure), the original 12-tap gastropub earned its iconic status thanks to the beer-curating prowess of owner Jimmy Han, who has a knack for procuring special kegs of the latest beers from small, independent breweries across the county (think: Highland Park Brewery, Phantom Carriage, Ladyface and more). In Long Beach, a growing craft beer destination in its own right, Han has twice as many taps to play with — along with a liquor license that allows for both traditional and beer-infused cocktails. The result is a consistent lineup that reads unlike anything south of the 10 freeway, filled with a mix of hard-to-find stalwarts, such as Smog City's Little Bo Pils, Mumford's IPAs and rare sours from Pasadena's Craftsman Brewing. —S.B.
255 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach; (562) 436-2337, beerbellyla.com.
Ports O' Call Village
San Pedro is only a 20-mile drive on the 110 from downtown L.A., but it can feel like a world away from the city. L.A.'s most southerly neighborhood (yes, San Pedro is part of L.A.) retains a laid-back, working-class vibe, due in large part to its history as a major shipping center, home to the nation's busiest container port: the Port of Los Angeles. Nestled along the port's main channel sits Ports O' Call Village, a 15-acre open-air shopping complex modeled after a New England seaside town, offering souvenir shops, candy vendors and seafood restaurants. The highlight is the San Pedro Fish Market, where thousands of weekly visitors load up their trays with fresh shrimp, lobster, crab and fish before handing them to a worker who simply asks, “Grilled or fried?” Minutes later, the catch is ready to enjoy with a beer or a side of garlic bread on the sprawling dining patio overlooking the water. The Village's quaint clapboard structures have become a bit ragged over the past 50 years, and a $150 million redevelopment plan calls for the demolition of all buildings. The new complex, dubbed the San Pedro Public Market, is set to be completed by 2020 and will have space for the family-owned Fish Market, but the rest of Ports O' Call's old-school, down-to-earth charm may well be lost at sea. —Matt Stromberg
1100 Berth, San Pedro; (310) 548-8076.
Have you ever eaten tofu that's actually better plain? Meiji Tofu's just might be. It's delicate, earthy and floral — with none of the chalky aftertaste of supermarket analogs. It has an almost cultlike following. Yelp reviewers rave that it's better than what they grew up with in Tokyo, and Providence chef Michael Cimarusti sources it for his restaurant. Meiji is a market, not a restaurant — but it's not weird to eat the tofu straight out of the package here, it's so delightfully fresh and light. If you can wait until you get home, it's also delicious with the slightest drizzle of soy and a sprinkling of bonito flakes, hiyyako-style. Chef-owner Koki Sato likes his with jam or even crumbled over pasta. He's been crafting organic, non-GMO Japanese tofu for 17 years, waking up at 2 a.m. daily to make it by hand in the smallest of batches. Get there early, because it sometimes sells out before Meiji closes at 1 p.m. Meiji also sells fresh soy milk and okara (that's soybean pulp). Cash only. —Gowri Chandra
16440 S. Western Ave., Gardena; (310) 538-0403, meijitofu.com.
One of the great joys of living in L.A. is that you can find a dazzling array of international cuisine within reasonable driving distance. This extends to breakfast. One of the few places to find a traditional Japanese breakfast around these parts is Fukagawa — and fortunately, it's served all day. The breakfast consists of several small dishes served on a tray: Rice, miso soup, cold tofu, a sheet of seaweed, pickled vegetables and an egg prepared one of four ways, are included in every combo. Other combos include your choice of steak or grilled fish (salmon, Spanish mackerel, mackerel) or the notorious fermented soybean dish natto. Combo D includes all of the above for the largest way to start your morning. Tucked in the Pacific Square Shopping Center, the restaurant is a fixture in Gardena, a city with a rich Japanese-American heritage. While udon, soba and a variety of other Japanese dishes are served, it's the breakfast that keeps regulars returning to the humble restaurant that's been around for more than 30 years. —J.T.
1630 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena; (310) 324-4306.
Hawkins House of Burgers
The owner of Hawkins House of Burgers, Cynthia Hawkins, knows a newbie when she sees one. “Your first time here?” she asks a couple of women, huddled facing the menu on the wall of this tiny burger shack. The women nod, and Hawkins says, “How did you hear about us? Food Network?” Turns out it was the Travel Channel, but it could have been accolades from any number of sources that have brought new faces into the heart of Watts, right up the street from Watts Towers, for a behemoth burger. Masochists will go for the Whipper, a creation that falls squarely into the Frankenstein school of burger-making, with two patties, layers of pastrami and a hot link sliced in half. It's a ridiculous thing, delicious in its hulking deformity, but the Fat Bacon Cheeseburger might be the more perfect beast. There's something so old-school and perfect about the hand-formed patties, the melty American cheese, the lettuce and pickles and tomato and onion. Burgers take about 15 minutes to cook (“You shoulda called in your order,” Hawkins advises), and those familiar with the routine wait in their cars on the street outside till Hawkins steps out the door and hollers the order number to the surrounding neighborhood. —B.R.
11603 Slater St., Watts; (323) 563-1129.
Revolutionario is further proof that you can put anything in a taco — in this case smoked lamb, chickpea tagine or the Middle Eastern egg dish shakshouka — and it will taste even better. The tiny, low-on-frills-but-high-on-charm North African taco joint (from classically trained French-Algerian chef Farid Zadi) also deserves bonus points for its location: Situated just west of USC, Revolutionario is a harissa-slicked oasis in something of a restaurant desert. You can't go wrong with any of the 10 taco options (though I'd suggest you start with the beef brisket barbacoa, or the chickpea-spinach–sweet potato tagine if you're vegetarian). In case North African tacos don't provide enough culture collision, Revolutionario serves three varieties of Japanese-Peruvian ceviche as well. And whatever you do, don't walk out of there without ordering the fried cauliflower, which can stand up to any of the fried cauli that has proliferated on menus across the city. Here it's dressed with spiced salt, smoked pepper, Aleppo pepper, sumac, toasted wheat, sesame seeds and dried lime. At $3.75 apiece, go ahead and order three. —Mara Shalhoup
1436 W. Jefferson Blvd., Exposition Park; (424) 223-3526, revolutionario.com.
Tacos los Poblanos Estilo Tijuana vs. Tire Shop Taqueria
One of L.A.'s most visceral food pleasures involves driving a few miles southeast of USC, where two of the city's best taco vendors — Tacos los Poblanos Estilo Tijuana at Avalon and Slauson, and the colloquially named Tire Shop Taqueria on Avalon just south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard — set up shop nightly a mere mile and a half apart. Both offer Tijuana-style tacos made with superlative carne asada — proper carne asada, taco aficionados will insist — which is unfurled on a charcoal grill in long meaty sheets, then hacked into manageable nubs on a large wooden chopping block. Both vendors pat out tortillas by hand and cook them to order on a large griddle, and both load their tacos with a scoop of thick, buttery guacamole, a sprinkle of chopped onions and a dab of smoky salsa. Wrapped tightly in squares of wax paper, they resemble meaty ice cream cones more than they do tacos. Tire Shop Taqueria and Tacos los Poblanos Estilo Tijuana are so similar you might think they are branches of the same operation. Do we have to pick just one? Let's call it a draw. —Garret Snyder
4069 S. Avalon Blvd., Historic South-Central.
5821 S. Avalon Blvd, South Park; instagram.com/tacoslospoblanosestilotijuana.
The pizza at Delicious Pizza lives up to its name, but this West Adams compound is built on more than superb pie. Founded by father-son duo Fred and Travis Sutherland and brothers Mike and Rick Ross (no, not that Rick Ross), the pizzeria is crafted from the same ingredients that made Mike Ross' 35-year-old hip-hop label a success: forward thinking and good taste. Like Delicious Vinyl (which released records by artists including Tone Loc and The Pharcyde), Delicious Pizza is a headquarters of cool. The edgy, lively space hosts arts shows including a recent J Dilla photo exhibit, performances by the likes of Vince Staples, music video screenings with established and up-and-coming directors, dancehall reggae parties, jazz brunches and, over Labor Day weekend, the inaugural West Adams Block Party, at which hundreds of attendees flooded the streets to nosh on pizza and take in sets by Talib Kweli and Doug E. Fresh. This isn't just one of the best restaurants in one of L.A.'s most exciting and under-the-radar neighborhoods — it's the best party there, too. —M.S.
5419 W. Adams Blvd., West Adams; (323) 424-3014, deliciouspizza.com.
Real Southern country cooking isn't necessarily celebrated for its low calorie content, and healthy soul food may seem like a contradiction in terms. But since 1984, Simply Wholesome has offered veggie and vegan preparations of scrumptious down-home delicacies, including vegan collard greens, mac 'n' cheese and Jamaican patties, right alongside its traditional meat options. A combination health food market and restaurant, this popular neighborhood spot is located in a cool, space-age Googie building designed in 1958 by the legendary Armet & Davis architectural team, creators of many of L.A.'s best-known midcentury coffee shops. With its sloping roofline, river-rock exterior and a jaunty spire pointing toward the heavens, Simply Wholesome will satisfy your history fix while simultaneously satiating your craving for cornbread, candied yams and black-eyed peas. A visit here can be a soul-enriching experience on many levels. —Nikki Kreuzer
4508 W. Slauson Ave., Windsor Hills; 323-294-2144.
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