Check out our annual restaurant issue, which this year celebrates desserts, out this Thursday, Aug. 8.
You could follow a road map to get around Los Angeles — or you could simply trust your nose. From the tantalizing aroma of roast duck in the San Gabriel Valley to bacon-wrapped hot dogs outside Staples Center, this is a town that has as many signature dishes as it has neighborhoods.
Even as we can chart Los Angeles by its savory eats, there is much to be gained from a sweets view of the Southland. At the center of the map, there'd be sikhye, like the one at Hwa Sun Ji in Koreatown — the sweet, malted rice refreshment is believed to soothe stomach troubles. There's mochi ice cream in the heart of Little Tokyo and fresh fruit carts dotting Echo Park.
Consider our list a cartography project with desserts as icons, tracing the cultural layout of a city connected in spirit more by its food than its roadways.
Mochi Ice Cream in Little Tokyo
In 1994, the nearly 102-year-old Little Tokyo shop Mikawaya introduced Los Angeles to mochi ice cream, a postmodern update of the round Japanese rice cake that's traditionally filled with sweet bean paste. While it was neither first in invention (credit goes to Japanese snack brand Lotte) nor the first to sell the stuff in the States (that'd be Hawaii), the confection nevertheless belongs to L.A.
The legend goes that Mikawaya's then-owner, Frances Hashimoto, who died in November, encouraged her husband, Joel Friedman, to explore his idea of using ice cream as a mochi filling. The shop eventually went on to package and distribute mochi ice cream on a national scale, becoming synonymous with the treat even after imitators arrived on the scene. Now, 19 years after its introduction, Angelenos can stop by one of three Mikawaya shops, including the one located at the juncture of the L-shaped Japanese Village Plaza Mall, for flavors you can't find in grocery stores. In recent years, they've added mochilato — mochi plus gelato — for variety.
Jalebi in Artesia
Any Indian snack shop worth mentioning in Artesia has semi-neat stacks of jalebi: deep-fried pastries shaped like coils and immersed in so much sugar syrup, accented with orange food coloring, that they glisten golden from a few feet away. Inquire about jalebi at, say Surati Farsan Mart on 186th Street or at Jay Bharat, around the corner on Pioneer, and you'll more than likely be offered a sample of the chewy pastries before you'd even think to ask.
Typically sold by the pound, jalebi can be an edible litmus test: Your enjoyment of this treat directly correlates to your appreciation for sugar itself. These aren't pastries for those who prefer subtle tastes — or texture, for that matter. There are hints of saffron, cardamom and rosewater, but sugar leads as a primary note.
Snow Ice in San Gabriel
Consider snow ice the 2.0 version of Taiwanese shave ice — the latter is a large dish of popular sweets like grass jelly, red beans or barley, topped by shave ice and then drizzled with condensed milk. Making good on its name, snow ice (sometimes known as shaved snow) is a twist on the classic, with a texture that's soft and almost fluffy from a shave made extra-fine. A milk-and-water base provides the creaminess that shaved ice lacks.
Shaved ice drew crowds, for a time, to Shau May at its now-closed Alhambra location. A version of Shau May in Monterey Park still offers the traditional slush, but these days you're more likely to hear buzz over its successor at tea shops and quick-lunch spots throughout San Gabriel and the surrounding neighborhoods. It can be capped with liberal portions of seasonal fruit, usually either fresh mango or strawberries, or paired with scoops of ice cream and diced fruit.
Baklava in Glendale
A well-traveled pastry, baklava has a fond place in Middle Eastern, Greek and Central Asian cuisines. In L.A., there's no better bet for locating a baklava to your liking than in Glendale, where the pastries are as likely to be found on restaurant menus as on trays in specialty bakeries.
It's at a bakery that you realize baklava is more a category of treats than a single item. The average baklava requires a copious amount of butter to construct the layering phyllo, but in shape and filling, there is no one standard. Sarkis Pastries on Glendale Avenue, for example, features almonds, walnuts, pistachios and cashews in its variations. You'll find a half dozen shapes and sizes — from a baklava folded on all corners like an envelope to small rolls that remind you of a squat cigarette.
Paletas in El Monte
If you ever wondered what it'd be like to sample the rainbow, there's no more direct way than paletas, or ice pops, available in bold hues from guava red to pistachio green. In El Monte, paleterias do brisk business, welcoming quick stops from everyone from families of five to middle-aged couples looking for refreshment.
A paleta is available in two versions. On a terribly warm day, you can opt for one made with fruit juice, with pieces of real fruit suspended throughout. But when the weather is not overbearingly hot, a juice paleta can hardly compare to milk-based pops that come in flavors like coffee or horchata. Then there's Paleteria y Neveria in El Monte, where you'll not want for either, thanks to the fresa con crema — better known as strawberries and cream — paleta.
Mango Sticky Rice in Thai Town
At many restaurants within the six-block radius of Thai Town in Hollywood, you'll see mango sticky rice. In Bangkok, mango sticky rice is sold in larger portions by the bagful; no longer street food in L.A., it's presented here on plates. The recipe remains much the same, however: Sticky rice, cooked in coconut milk, is covered with fresh ripe mango slices, with a sauce of salted coconut cream often served on the side. Those with a serious sweet tooth can treat mango sticky rice, as filling as any dessert could ever be, like a meal.
For a short cut straight to the dessert course, there's Bhan Kanom Thai, part confection shop and part bakery. At the cashier are boxes of mango sticky rice, all packed up in clear plastic to-go cartons and ready for purchasing.
Babkas in West L.A.
Babkas are most readily available on the Westside, where there are larger Jewish communities, particularly around the Pico Corridor and Fairfax District. Babka is classified as a type of cake, but it shares a few textural similarities with bread. At some bakeries, such as Diamond Bakery on Fairfax, it can even be thinly sliced.
A babka can come in one of several styles, such as cinnamon raisin and, at Fred's Bakery on Robertson, pineapple. The favorite remains chocolate, in chip form or as a ganache, often flavored with cinnamon and topped with streusel. The trick is to grab your loaf of babka by late morning. By the afternoon, often, your choice will have been made for you.
Churros in East L.A.
There are some who'll head to Olvera Street for their churro fix, but we go to El Mercadito in East L.A. for ours. There are other options in this part of town; however, few mirror the sense of conviviality you feel while standing in line at the snack stands near the entrance to the market.
While you wait your turn to order, you'll have a moment to marvel at the bags of chips fried fresh, or icy raspados in a slew of colors. Deep-fried, then coated in equal parts sugar and cinnamon, churros are sold by the bagful here at $2 each. It's not unusual to get a fresh order, as new batches are made frequently here. Yes, they're more than shareable among friends, but you'll still be tempted to keep the bag to yourself.
Dduk in Koreatown
A Korean child's first birthday is celebrated with sweet dduk, or rice cakes, constructed into a rainbow-colored cake known as mujigae dduk. Subtle in taste, the cake typically includes layers of white, pink, yellow and pale green. Koreatown is home to shops dedicated to the task of ringing the occasion in style.
While there may be other options for dduk in the neighborhood, the preferred choice for mujigae dduk is Poong Nyun Bakery inside Koreatown Plaza on Western, where rice treats — more sweet than savory options — are meticulously packaged, from rainbow dduk to round, hollow ones filled with sesame seeds, oil and sugar.
Rosewater Ice Cream in Hollywood
The ice cream and sorbet selection at the original Mashti Malone shop, where La Brea meets Sunset, is emblematic of Persian cuisine's appreciation for floral accents. Rosewater is regularly used — there's a creamy rosewater and a ginger rosewater — along with saffron and pistachios.
With a two-plus-decade history, Mashti Malone is firmly entrenched in Hollywood, often catering for the film and television industry. In fact, as far as Google knows, the words “rosewater ice cream” are synonymous with the ice cream shop — Mashti Malone's is the first search result if you search for the treat online. Not in the neighborhood? Never fear: The shop's ice cream now can be purchased online or at Whole Food branches on the West Coast.
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