Welcome to L.A. Week on First We Feast. As part of our continuing initiative to devote more coverage to Los Angeles, we’ll be running special features all week to explore the city’s ever-evolving food scene—from its most vaunted chefs, to its gritty underbelly.
Biggie versus Pac. Yankees versus Dodgers. Hot dogs versus tacos.
New York and Los Angeles have a long history of rivalry. In many ways, the cities could not be more different—whether you’re comparing the sunny beaches of Malibu to the frozen tundra that is Central Park in February, or L.A.’s lenient definition of “work” to NYC’s obsessive ladder-climbing, the coastal hubs have become shorthand for two very distinct lifestyles.
But in many ways, Angelenos and New Yorkers aren’t so different after all. They’re both status-obsessed. They both like to visit each other’s turf religiously, only to pretend it’s not that great. And they both love to eat.
While there are a few food fights that aren’t even worth entertaining—let’s just admit that L.A. has superior Mexican food, and New York dominates the pizza game—plenty of topics are still up for debate. Here, we break down the arguments that L.A. and New York boosters make about their beloved food scenes, and ask you to cast your vote to settle the coast-to-coast smackdown once and for all.
Burgers (In-N-Out vs. Shake Shack)
Angelenos say: What’s more iconic than an orange-pink California sunset and a drive-thru burger? Not only is L.A. home to arguably the greatest bun-and-patty combo in America (Apple Pan), but it’s also the birthing grounds for the most influential fast-food chain of all time: In-N-Out. That’s right—secret-menu items, endless customizations, and the piece de resistance: Animal Style. Knock the fries all you want. In-N-Out opened the doors for every other fast-casual concept out there.
New Yorkers say: L.A.’s car culture lends itself to plenty of respectable burger lore, but if you’re concerned with current-day deliciousness, New York is the place to be. The city has its own classics to hold dear (Corner Bistro, P.J. Clarke’s), but its the newcomers that have established NYC as an unstoppable force in the patty game. The Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern set a new standard for haute burgers, just as Shake Shake has redefined fast-food from Madison Square Park to Moscow. Danny Meyer’s empire is the future; In-N-Out is just another B- burger you Instagram to prove that you went on vacation.
Angelenos say: In a taco-obsessed town, it would make sense that we value a casual dining environment more than most. Even a place like Petit Trois—Ludo Lefebvre’s celebrated French bistro—is situated in a former Thai restaurant in a dingy strip mall. With year-round al fresco dining, there’s no reason for unnecessary formalities. It’s nice when your waiter (or future soap opera star) smiles and drops all tones of condescension. There’s enough bullshit and pretense in Hollywood as it it.
New Yorkers say: While a more casual approach to restaurants has taken hold since 9/11, New York is still a town with a veneration for fine dining, and the city’s best chefs and restaurateurs keep the classics—Le Grenouille, Chanterelle—close at heart. Moreover, the cult of Danny Meyer looms large, inspiring everyone from bartenders to maître d’s to aspire to front-of-house greatness. The laid-back L.A. vibe is all well and good, but when customers are paying $75 a head, forgetting an order or pouring the wrong wine no longer seems that cute.
Delis (Langer’s vs. Katz’s)
Angelenos say: If New York was the blueprint for Jewish delis, then L.A. perfected them. Nowadays, NYC’s delis are horrendous tourist traps with lines out the door. In SoCal, places like Langer’s are still deeply embedded in Jewish life. But that’s just historical background. The go-to move at Langer’s is what’s familiarly referred to as the #19: ‘stram with coleslaw, Russian dressing, and Swiss. Like Katz’s, the deli hand-carves thick, fatty pieces of pastrami, but only Langer’s serves the double-baked, caraway-flecked rye loaf that is sliced for each order. And it doesn’t hurt its reputation when Jonathan Gold goes on record saying he’d like Langer’s to cater his funeral.
New Yorkers say: You know what 125+ years on the Lower East Side means? It means that you don’t have to humor any pretenders to the throne—especially when they are from L.A. The pastrami at Katz’s has just the right amount of black pepper and coriander, and the Jewish rye is slicked with a perfect smear of brown mustard, but its the undeniable history of the place—the signed photos on the wall, the archaic ticketing system, the vintage beer signs—that make the meal transcendent.
Old-school celebrity chefs (Puck vs. Batali)
Angelenos say: The godfather of L.A. cuisine, Wolfgang Puck, balances commercial and personal success as expertly as Batali, which is why he was able to transition seamlessly from local star to national icon. But does Batali have a signature dish like Wolfgang’s smoked salmon and caviar pizza? And can Batali boast of having the second-best restaurant in his city?
New Yorkers say: Batali arguably does have one of the top-five restaurants in the city (Del Posto), and all of his other spots (Babbo, Lupa, etc.) are certified NYC essentials—there are no mook steakhouses or crappy airport lounges to muddy up his brand. (And that’s to say nothing of Eataly, the gastronomic paradise that is now the blueprint for high-profile food plazas across the country.) Even with his network TV hosting duties and countless high-profile appearances, Batali always stays connected with the local food scene—it’s practically a New York rite of passage to see him on his Vespa, zooming between restaurants in his orange Crocs. Through it all, he even finds time to get those tweets off like none other—where you at, @WolfgangBuzz?
New-school celebrity chefs (Choi vs. Chang)
Angelenos say: Without a sliver of doubt, Choi has become the face of L.A. food culture. Not only are all modern food trucks indebted to Kogi BBQ, but his recent restaurants at the Line Hotel have positioned Koreatown as one of the most important dining destinations in the country. But Choi isn’t content to live off the accliam of his past projects (of which there are many). The dude is a deep-thinker, which is evident from his now-legendary MAD Symposium speech. Teaming up with Daniel Patterson, Choi is moving full steam ahead with loco’l, a project designed to bring healthy, affordable fast-food for the masses. What’s more powerful than that?
New Yorkers say: There are so many ways to demonstrate Chang’s cultural dominance: Momofuku Noodle Bar did as much as any restaurant to catalyze the ramen boom in America. Momofuku spawned Lucky Peach, one of the most exciting food magazine to hit stands since Gourmet. And Chang helps curate the same MAD Symposium that Choi got invited to speak at. But really, we just have to talk about the food: Choi is one of the most inspiring and awesome guys out there, but Chang’s cooking is just straight-up better—and he’s got the James Beard Award to prove it.
Angelenos say: It’s all about the 626, a.k.a. the San Gabriel Valley, a.k.a. the Chinese Beverly Hills. It is the promised land for all dumpling and noodle lovers across the SoCal. Not only in terms of scope, but also quality, no place surpasses L.A. Chinese food. California was the preferred destination for wealthier immigrant families, and additional spending power meant they could hire trained chefs who weren’t forced to tailor their menus to a Western audience. The excitement around restaurants like Chengdu Taste is also giving momentum by a strong youth movement, with websites like Chihuo leading the charge. Oh, that’s right, NYC doesn’t have a Din Tai Fung either…
New Yorkers say: From Flushing, to Sunset Park, to Lower Manhattan, New York has three distinct Chinatowns that don’t require driving to a place that’s so far away (SGV), a lot of people don’t even think it’s part of Los Angeles. Dim sum is dim sum—you’re hungover, so who really cares?—but NYC has L.A. beat when it comes to integrating Chinese cooking into the modern restaurant scene (see: Decoy, Fung Tu, Lotus Blue), rather than leaving it cordoned off in ethnic enclaves.
Critics (Gold vs. Wells)
Angelenos say: The “high-low” priest; the Pulitzer-prize winner; the guy who interviewed N.W.A.; the professor—no one has done more to change eating habits for a city than JGold—and he’s done so without being showy or outright cruel. Street food became L.A.’s identity, and Gold was its most vocal chronicler. People hold onto his 101 black booklet as though it were a Bible. Above all, Gold is a cultural observer in a way that makes other critics look narrow-minded.
New Yorkers say: Covering L.A.’s vast, complicated sprawl is a laudable endeavor, and JGold’s tireless commitment to pounding the pavement in search of the city’s best food is the stuff of legend. But let’s be real: Gold is more of a cultural anthropologist than anything, and his gift to his readers is discovery more so than criticism. When it comes to preserving the restaurant-review genre in the age of Yelp and blogs, the New York Times is in its own league, and whoever occupies the critic seat—currently, Pete Wells—is the de facto voice of record in terms of the NYC dining landscape and, increasingly, the national food scene.
Angelenos say: Brunch is for people with time to waste, and no one beats L.A. in that category. The quinoa bowls; the fresh produce; the juices—it all fits the California image perfectly. When the weather is 85 degrees most of the year, it’s just easier to put brunch on repeat.
New Yorkers say: New Yorkers work harder than L.A. layabouts, and they also play harder. Brunch isn’t about açaí smoothies and egg-white omelets in New York—it’s about turning way, way, way, way up and escaping the gripping dread of what the week ahead holds. NYC literally has clubs for brunch where they black out the windows, fire up the sparkler-equipped champagne bottles, and pretend it’s still 3am when regular people are reading the Style section at Stumptown. It may not be something to be proud of, but there’s no doubt that NYC brunches hard as fuck. (Not having to drive home helps.)
Pac or Biggie?
Who you got?