Imagine a giant hour glass filled not with sand but with calories. That’s pretty much a perfect visual for this first year of living in and exploring L.A., eating my way from ocean to desert, hopping from cuisine to cuisine. As I said in my post yesterday, for my budget and interest-level, L.A. has more to offer than New York. You can eat extraordinarily well without breaking the bank. So here, then, are my 10 favorite places to eat here… the ones I’ll miss the most when I’m gone for 3 1/2 months. Are they objectively the best? Not by any means; they’re just the ones I’ll be running back to when the plane lands at LAX in January.
I’ll be the first to admit, I barely scratched the surface of the San Gabriel Valley (home to the country’s best and most authentic Chinese food) since arriving here last September. We had our bad experience at Shanghai #1 Seafood Village where, after being made to wait an hour and a half, they ran out of most of their food. We weren’t in a rush to go back. Then, one day, I propelled myself down the 101 Freeway, merged on to the 10 West, and found myself face-to-face with the most beautiful plate of dumplings I’d ever seen. This happened at Tasty Noodle House, a Chinese restaurant with food that offers the complete inverse of the greasy, sugary, airport Chinese food many of us grew up eating. Everything here tastes clean and carefully made. The noodles were chewy and fresh-tasting; same for the pork buns and the tofu dish I ordered. Apparently, even after going two days in a row, I still barely scratched the surface; Jonathan Gold himself commented on my post, “Funnily enough, you should have gone back a few more times. Because while the generic Northern Chinese stuff is very good at Tasty Noodle, the restaurant may be the only place in the SGV (and probably the US) that specializes in the slightly odd, seafood-based cuisine of Dalian, a city in coastal Shandong.” Looks like I have my work cut out for me when I return.
What you see there in that photo is the dish I’ll miss the most when I’m away from L.A.: the prik king at Ruen Pair. It’s a stir-fry of meat (your choice, I chose chicken), string beans, and a red chile paste that’s pepped up, based on what I can detect when I eat it, with lemongrass and ginger and perhaps lime juice. It’s piquant to the nth degree. It’s impossible not to eat the whole thing. So, on an almost weekly basis, I eat that for lunch…and I love it. Which is why Ruen Pair ties, on this list, with Jitlada, the way more famous, way more celebrated Thai restaurant here in L.A. Jitlada is where you go to impress out-of-towners, like when Rachel Wharton came to town or our friends Patty and Lauren; we brought them to Jitlada and watched them set their tongues on fire with giant green mussels, the whole braised fish, and the jungle curry. These are all dishes that will impress even the most jaded palate. And yet, it’s such a hassle to go there, the service is so haphazard, I prefer Ruen Pair. Going to Ruen Pair is like going to a friend’s house for dinner; going to Jitlada is like going to Toys R’ Us the day before Christmas. Plus, Ruen Pair has a coconut galangal soup so potent and wonderful, it can cure any cold. I’m sure, though, that I’ll miss them both.
Confession: I just shot a video at Canelé, met the owners, and now I feel even more connected to the place. But I shot the video there because it’s one of my favorite places to eat in L.A. It’s cozy and friendly and warm and the food is always wonderful. The vibe at night is both exciting and subdued: the exciting half comes from the open kitchen, where you can watch chefs monitoring giant cuts of meat in the blasting, hot oven; the subdued half comes from the dining room where tables are set, romantically, with candles. The food is seasonal (the chefs go to the farmer’s market three times a week) and very European, with a brandade that rivals any I’ve had elsewhere and a whole roasted fish that’s not for the timid (it’ll wink at you before you jab your fork in). And, as you can see in the picture above, Canelé also does a killer brunch (voted the best in L.A. by L.A. Weekly) with a pancake that deserves a slot on the Seven Wonders of the World list. It’s a restaurant only real Angelenos know about and that’s what makes it great.
It was inevitable that, when I moved to L.A., I would fall in love with Lucques because I’ve had “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” (the cookbook) forever and I’ve always counted it among my favorites. The restaurant didn’t disappoint. We went several times since moving here; first for a Sunday supper, then with my parents, then for the Marion Cunningham Tribute Dinner in July. Suzanne Goin’s food is both intelligent and whimsical. She balances a salad like a French master, but throws in pieces of watermelon radish for both color and as a nod to the farmer’s market. Whereas some chefs try to edify customers with their knowledge, creating food that can feel a little punishing, Goin does the opposite: she edifies while delighting her customers. The place is always packed and it only takes one visit to see why. It’s an L.A. must.
I’m putting these two places together on my list because, in a way, they’re both macho chef restaurants. At one, a macho chef proves himself a contender in the mold of Ferran Adria and Jose Andres by inventing food that may as well have been beamed in from outer space; at the other, two macho chefs make food that tests the limits of how much fat you can inject into one dish. If neither of these descriptions sounds appetizing, you just have to go to Michael Voltaggio’s ink. and Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook’s Animal to experience this food for yourself. It’s all shockingly delicious. At ink., I ate a gnocchi that exploded in my mouth with a gooey cheese filling. At Animal, I ate a biscuit topped with foie gras and maple sausage gravy that may have been the most decadent thing I’ve ever tasted. If New York feels like the center of what’s happening in the food world at all times, these chefs are the ones making L.A. relevant. I’ll always be fascinated to see what they’re doing next.
You must be so sick of me talking about Gjelina. I’m sorry, I just love the place. I first heard about it because my cookbook editor asked me to get in touch with the chef, Travis Lett, for my cookbook. He wouldn’t return my calls but the hostess at Gjelina offered to let me cook with her boyfriend, “He makes really good food,” she told me. It was at that moment I knew I had to try this place. And it has never, ever disappointed. The food is always made with the freshest, farmer’s market ingredients. The roasted Thumbelina carrots with cumin and yogurt may be the very best thing that’s every happened to a carrot in the history of carrots. And the atmosphere is charming, especially when you sit out back at lunch, letting the ocean breeze (the ocean’s just a few blocks away) wash over you while servers casually stroll between tables. This place positively screams California–in particular, Venice Beach–and there’s nothing like it back east.
I think Forage in Silverlake is the great, unsung hero of the L.A. food scene. While The Spice Table gets all the national press these days (its chef made Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs), I always leave there shrugging my shoulders. I leave Forage wondering when I can come back next. And go back I do, almost every week, for market-inspired salads and sandwiches that are always terrifically balanced, highly acidic, incredibly healthy but they taste so good you’d never know that. What Forage does so well is it points us, as eaters, in the right direction—it shows us how to take traditional “health foods” like quinoa and pep them up to such an extreme they no longer feel like health foods. And for those of us who aren’t feeling healthy, there’s pork belly on the menu (I’ve never had it) and an avocado sandwich so rich and indulgent you’d think you were eating a lobe of foie gras. It’s become for me what Hummus Place was for me in New York; a restaurant most food people don’t care that much about but which I care about a lot. Forage, I shall miss you.
3. Night + Market.
Go to Night + Market and prepare to be dazzled. It’s where the chefs go when they come to town. David Chang’s gone there, as has Rene Redzepi. It’s Thai Street food prepared with such authenticity and such care, you need a fire hydrant for your tongue before the night’s over. The chef isn’t shy with chiles. In fact, there was one dish I ate there–a fish covered in Bird’s Eye Chiles–that sent me to the bathroom in a tear-induced, nose-blowing fit. It’s a testament to how good the food is that I didn’t care at all. This is a restaurant for those who prefer the roller coaster to the carousel, heavy metal concerts to ballet. It’s a shot of adrenaline to the mouth.
Try as I might, explore as I will, there isn’t a Mexican restaurant in L.A. that I like as much as Loteria (both the one in the farmer’s market and the one on Hollywood Blvd). This will come as scandalous news to Angelenos who think of Loteria as a mass-market chain, a corporate take on the more authentic Mexican food you find at food trucks or at restaurants like La Casita Mexicana which we went to, earlier this year, and liked but didn’t love. People can say what they want. I think Loteria is wonderful. Their tortillas, which they hand-press themselves, are perfect expressions of the form. Their fillings, from “pollo en pipian rojo” (chicken in a spicy pumpkin-seed sauce, which you see at the very top of this post) to lingua de res en salsa verde (beef tongue in a tomatillo salsa), are unlike any fillings I’ve had in a taco or burrito before. New York, famously short on quality Mexican food, doesn’t have anything that comes close to the food at Loteria. The only other Mexican restaurant I like as much in L.A. (so far) is Guelaguetza, where you must go for the mole negro (pictured above). As Jonathan Gold says, “It’s blacker than Dick Cheney’s heart.” We bring visiting friends to Guelaguetza on a Saturday night, not just for the mole, but for the culture—a room packed with Mexican families and live marimba music performed on a stage. If Mexican food was a major draw when we decided to move to L.A. last year, these are the two Mexican restaurants that have made it worthwhile for me.
1. Pizzeria Mozza.
I thought about this long and hard and when I trust my gut, and don’t over-intellectualize, it becomes impossibly clear that my favorite restaurant in L.A. is Pizzeria Mozza. It’s the restaurant I get most excited to visit and the one that leaves me happiest at the end of a meal. Based on who owns it–Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton–how could it not? The best advice we got about it was to never make a reservation, just to show up and sit at the bar. That makes Mozza doable for almost any night. And at that bar, there’s always a friendly face to steer you through the wine menu (which is overwhelmingly impressive). Then the food starts arriving. Nancy Silverton’s salads are mini masterpieces–studies in vegetables, oils, vinegars and cheeses that should be fodder for a PhD thesis on the subject. Then, the pizzas. I know they’re controversial. Some say they’re not even pizzas, just glorified bread with toppings. Whatever. They’re crazy delicious. My favorite, I think, is the one with white anchovies, though the meatball one is pretty spectacular, as was that squash blossom one we tried last time. If it were just about pizzas and salads, maybe Mozza wouldn’t make #1. But then come the desserts. There should be a national holiday designated to celebrate Nancy Silverton’s butterscotch budino. It’s justifiably famous. Only, before we give that a national holiday, I think we need to seriously consider giving her Caramel Copetta with Marshmallow Sauce and Salted Peanuts (pictured above) a holiday first. Excuse my outburst, but JESUS CHRIST, how could a dessert taste that good? This woman is a witch or a wizard or a warlock or something because her food is practically enchanted, it’s so stunning. Writing this final entry is making me want to jump into my car for lunch at Mozza right now. It’s where I’ll want to eat for my final L.A. meal before heading to New York on Friday; and it’s where I’ll want to eat when I get back in January.
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So there you have it. My arbitrarily-chosen, but deeply felt list of my 10 (ok, 13) favorite places to eat in L.A. so far. Maybe next year I’ll look back at this list and laugh, having expanded my repertoire beyond Tasty Noodle House and Loteria. But something tells me I’ll always love those places and that this list, while by no means authoritative, will remain convincing enough to stay valid.