In a city that trades on star power, it’s not surprising that big-name chefs tend to hold sway. National press for L.A.’s culinary scene (which is pretty underrated in general, but that’s a whole other article) often focuses on the Roy Chois, Ludo Lefebvres, and Jonathan Whiteners, while talented chefs with smaller PR machines can get lost in the city’s infamous sprawl.
Throw in the challenges of the city’s rampant car culture (when’s the last time you investigated the streets on foot?) and the sheer diversity of its culinary offerings, and it’s easy to miss some of the most delicious and innovative dining experiences Los Angeles has to offer.
We know the term underrated is a slippery one, especially in a place that valorizes roving food trucks and cramped Korean joints tucked away in the bowels of the city. But hear us out for a second: Why shouldn’t the owner of the best lonchero in Los Angeles, or the city’s most important Oaxacan restaurant, warrant national acclaim? These folks are far too talented to be pegged as mere local heroes.
Read on to discover our nominations for chefs and families that real Angelenos know deserve to be in the limelight.
Thi Tran, Starry Kitchen
943 N Broadway (213-814-1123, starrykitchen.com)
Thi Tran’s playful, pan-Asian dinner spot describes itself as an “underground+Illegal Restaurant/Kitchen gone legit?!?” (her punctuation, not ours), with “legit” meaning a low-key setup in the retro Grand Star Jazz Club in L.A.’s Chinatown. It’s a big step for Tran, if you consider that she got her start hosting illegal dinners out of her apartment and has even hosted pop-up cannabis feasts. While the surrounding cluster of rundown restaurants prevent this area from being a culinary destination in its own right, Tran is quickly putting Starry Kitchen on the map with irreverent pan-Asian retakes: a Singaporean chilli crab that must be ordered 24 hours in advance, and ribeye beef-satay noodles described as “VERY Asian+almost tastes like Asia itself ;D” . Starry Kitchen might not take itself too seriously, but Tran’s food warrants respect nonetheless.(Photo: LA Times)
Eric Park, Black Hogg
2852 Sunset Blvd (323-953-2820, blackhogg.com)
When Eric Park first started cooking at Silverlake’s Black Hogg a few years back, his rich, meaty menu (butter-stuffed lamb burger, anyone?) caused considerable local fanfare, but news failed to spread far and wide. Perhaps there were only so many Animal-esque meat feasts that L.A. residents could handle, because Park recently switched up the dishes to include the vibrant flavors of his SoCal upbringing: think bone-marrow elote and cauliflower chana masala. Further cause to visit this overlooked Eastside establishment comes in the form of Sopressata, the lunchtime “sandwich concept” that Black Hogg houses by day. Heads up: the avocado and fontina version is just as good as the one dubbed “Italian Meats.” Say no more. (Photo: LA Times)
Adel Chagar, Bird N Hand
339 N Fairfax Ave (323-951-0039)
The newly opened Bird N Hand isn’t chef Adel Chagar’s first foray into catering to Fairfax’s Supreme-adoring masses; he previously ran Chameau Delibar in the exact same spot. That inauspicious-looking cafe earned a cult following with its fresh, Moroccan-inspired dishes (the duck bastilla is the stuff of urban folklore), and Bird N Hand is already going the same way—albeit in a totally different direction.
With his simple but delicious menu of harissa-fried wings and lemon-garlic rotisserie chicken, it seems crazy that Chagar’s name is barely known—much less ranked—among L.A.’s casual dining stars, although that might have something to do with a complete lack of online presence, and annoyingly inconsistent opening hours. But when the BBQ fried chicken tall boy (fried chicken + hash browns + cheese + slaw + Harissa mayo + oh Jesus) and croissant crack pudding (croissant bits + condensed milk + chocolate chips + holy shit) are this good, it’s hard to hold that against him. (Photo: Mondette)
Jared Simons, The No Name Club
432 N. Fairfax Avenue (323-651-1583)
In years gone by, chef Jared Simons garnered praise for his cooking at the now defunct Lexington Social House, and later at trendy taco establishment La Otra Escuela. Given that he now cooks out of a private West Hollywood social club that literally has no name, it’s not surprising that the public-facing accolades have slowed up. But by all accounts (including his own Instagram feed), Simons’ food is just as delicious as it always was: piles of sticky, glossy short ribs; golden fried chicken; and tender flat-iron steak served with dashi-braised carrot. If you can find your way to the unmarked entrance and swallow the stuffy door policy, you’ll be rewarded with a dinner that’s worth the obstacle course (Photo: Taste Terminal)
Meals by Genet
1053 S Fairfax Ave (323-938-9304, mealsbygenet.com)
If you’ve never ventured into an Ethiopian restaurant, then you’re missing out on a whole bag of tricks. Particularly if the chef in the kitchen is Genet Agonafer, whose eponymous restaurant in L.A.’s Little Ethiopia stands head and shoulders above twenty similar options on the same, tourist-free block. What makes Agonafer’s kifto, foul, and injera such remarkable representations of an often overlooked cuisine? Perhaps the time that goes into dishes like her chicken dorowot, which is stirred and simmered with cardamom for three days before serving. Or the attention to detail that distinguishes her beautiful vegetarian platters, which offer a dozen artfully spiced stews and side dishes. Whatever Agonafer’s intangible x-factor is, you can expect her food to satiate much more than mere hunger. (Photo: LA Times)
The Lopez Family, Guelaguetza
3014 W Olympic Blvd (213-427-0608, ilovemole.com)
At Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza, the food is very much a family affair. Two generations of the Lopez clan have held down the fort at this Koreatown institution, which remains deeply woven into the city’s fabric amid waves of gentrification. In an era of fusion tacos, it would be easy to dismiss the Lopez’s food as simple home-cooking, but there’s so much more to it than that. The mole sauces here are deep, complex affairs, covering the spectrum from the rich, inky negro made with 26 ingredients, to a punchy and verdant hoja santa sauce. Try them poured over rotisserie chicken, or spooned onto banana-leaf–wrapped tamales. It’s like eating from the kitchen of the Michelin-starred Mexican grandma you never had. (Photo: SCPR)
Vivian Ku, Pine & Crane
1521 Griffith Park Blvd (323-668-1128, pineandcrane.com)
This low-key Taiwanese noodle house and tea shop quickly made Silverlake residents reconsider the long commute to the San Gabriel Valley. And it’s not hard to see why: Ku trained at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, and the proof is in the seasonal, locally-sourced pudding (except there are no puddings, sorry about that). This is a refreshing, SoCal spin on traditional Taiwanese cuisine, where the rich beef noodle soup comes with mounds of garlicky, sauteed greens sourced straight from Ku’s family farm in Bakersville, CA. Throw in a deli case of crunchy daikon pickles and a chewy, woodear salad that will haunt your dreams, and it seems word of Pine & Crane will soon spread far and wide. Remember where you read it first. (Photo: Justin Bolois/CHOW)
Raul Ortega, Mariscos Jalisco
3040 E Olympic Blvd (323-528-6701)
No food-focused LA list would be complete without the inclusion of at least one food truck, and Raul Ortega’s mariscos on wheels are as accolade-worthy as any. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know that Ortega turns out vibrant ceviches and cocteles from his regular spot in Boyle Heights; but it’s the crispy shrimp tacos and avocado-loaded tostadas that get the most love. To borrow the sentiments of LA’s revered scribe Jonathan Gold (who ranks Mariscos Jalisco as one of LA’s best eats): “If life were just, Ortega would be a wealthy man, and you would see his face plastered on airport concessions, glossy chain restaurants and cerveza ads.” But he’s not, so it’s a probably a good thing that you’ll want to buy his $1.75 tacos by the dozen. (Photo: LA Weekly)