It always brings us much heartache and melancholy to report on the worst trends of the year. One would hope for another year of delicious, exciting, favorable long-standing trends, but usually that is far from the epicurean reality. 2017 is no different in that respect. The sheer number of subpar Nashville hot chicken openings is doing a disservice to the regional specialty that cannot be underestimated. The overly saturated Sichuan restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley is not welcome news, especially when most diverge from the essence of the richly subtle cuisine. Even creative chefs have overemphasized the lowly lamb neck as the next big thing to replace previous trends of years past (such as the use of pork belly or kale in most everything). Lastly, the inhospitable policy of charging for “filtered” tap water in local restaurants is far from a promising sign. However, hope springs eternal for more promising trends next year.
Nashville hot chicken
Before Howlin' Ray's entered the competitive L.A. food-truck scene, incendiary Nashville hot chicken was an esoteric regional specialty limited to Music City's borders. The insidious spice blend and the crispy crackly crunch of the freshly fried chicken was beyond addictive, even if you felt as if you were going to pass out at any moment from fiery spice overload. Howlin' Ray's set the scene in L.A. in its eventual brick-and-mortar location with almost unimaginable two hour–plus waits and severely truncated business hours. Its spicy fried chicken was quite good, though perhaps not as good as the interminable queue would have you believe. Currently, more than enough menus are featuring this fried chicken preparation, from Dave's Hot Chicken to Crawford's to even your local KFC. (When KFC starts marketing its take on hot chicken, you know that the formerly elusive foodstuff has reached ultimate carrying capacity.) Most of these Johnny-come-lately purveyors are despondently subpar and look to be milking the regional genre for all its worth. Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing, and hot chicken has surely oversaturated the market.
Howlin' Ray's, 727 N. Broadway, Chinatown; (213) 935-8399, howlinrays.com
Dave's Hot Chicken, 5115 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz; (818) 414-7310
Crawford's, 2516 Beverly Blvd., Westlake; (213) 568-3133, crawfordschicken.com
Just a few years ago, the uniquely tantalizing and novel interpretation of the cuisine from China's Sichuan province acted as a refreshing change of pace from the Mandarin and Cantonese restaurants in the sprawling San Gabriel Valley. At the time, the pioneer restaurant in the genre, Chengdu Taste, opened to massive acclaim and endless waits. Ravenous patrons could not seem to get enough of the euphoria from the numbing sensation of dishes loaded with Sichuan peppercorns. In the majority of these entrees, the meat or fish took a back seat to the gargantuan heaping of Sichuan peppercorns and peppers covering the entire dish. Chengdu Taste was the forerunner of an onslaught of Sichuan restaurants opening in the SGV in the ensuing years, including Szechuan Impression, Legendary and even the curiously named Nothingness. Once again, many of the restaurants are just relying on the Sichuan peppercorns without focusing on the subtle layering of spice and meticulous attention to culinary detail that makes this cuisine so magical.
Chengdu Taste, 828 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 588-2284
Szechuan Impression, 1900 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 283-4622
Legendary, 2718 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 872-0616
Nothingness, 288 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 782-7660, nothingnessrestaurant.askforspecial.com
Lamb neck used to be one of those tough parts of the animal that were immediately discarded. However, recently chefs with an adventurous streak (those who have moved on from formerly exotic veal sweetbreads, beef throat and other not-so-user-friendly offal) have elevated the lowly cut and have begun to employ it on their menus — a litany of menus to be exact. Sadly, these experiments did not tend to end up too felicitously. Lamb neck still comes out aggressively stringy, unyieldingly tough and egregiously unappetizing. It's a cheap cut of lamb that in this instance has failed to transcend its humble roots. The lamb neck trend needs to be put out to pasture.
When done well, shakshuka — the dish of baked egg basted in stewed tomatoes and peppers popular throughout North Africa and the Middle East — is simplicity itself and infinitely comforting. The interplay between the runny, vibrant yolk and the piquant tomato sauce is a thing of utter beauty. Few local places do right by it, except for the lovely Tarte Tatin Bakery in Beverly Hills and Lodge Bread in Culver City, which do justice to the simple dish. Despite a few wonderful interpretations, most breakfast joints cannot seem to get it right. And too many places corrupt the essence of the shakshuka by adding extraneous cheese, bacon, sausage and ham to the mix, which detracts from its vegetarian simplicity. Hopefully in 2018, better shakshuka will be upon us.
Tarte Tatin Bakery, 9123 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 550-0011
Lodge Bread, 11918 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (424) 384-5097, lodgebread.com
You used to receive the dreaded question of “sparkling or still” from restaurant waiters, which was a way for enterprising restaurants to charge another $9 or $10 for bottled water when all you truly wanted was free L.A. tap water. Nowadays there's a new trend in L.A. restaurants, where unsuspecting diners are being charged for tap water that has been filtered. Once diners get the bill, they're stuck with a charge for the formerly complimentary tap water. This looks to be another ingenious way for said restaurants to nickel and dime customers and aggressively pad restaurant tabs. Why not simply offer “filtered water” for free, as a courtesy and goodwill gesture, if there is no bottled water option in that particular restaurant? This policy will surely pay dividends to the restaurant in the long run, keeping diners more than happy for return visits and actually improving the restaurant's profitability.