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.
Is Los Angeles’ image as a kale-loving town just a lame stereotype, or is it really a fair portrayal? Is the city’s most relevant restaurant a Silverlake Thai place that serves pork-blood MSG soup, or is it a make-shift taco stand with inconsistent hours in front of a tire shop? Most Angelenos have strong opinions about such matters. Equipped with their trusty JGold 101 booklets, the residents of L.A. demand a rich variety of dining experiences. Put it this way: the Hollywood producer without a go-to dumpling house is a wash-up in this town.
Despite its bounty of riches, Los Angeles isn’t always kind to outsiders. Navigating its endless sprawl is further complicated by congested highways (“The Californians” SNL skit wasn’t too far off). A place like Grand Central Market remains a vital, accessible hub, but good luck traversing the corridors of Koreatown—which has the highest concentration of restaurants per square mile in the country. To truly understand the city, it requires serious legwork, research, and committed bellies.
Nobody knows this better than the writers and food bloggers of L.A., who log hundreds of miles in their cars to reveal the complex layers of this city. To cut to the core of its vibrant dining scene, we enlisted a small but formidable group of hungry scribes, bloggers, and IG powerhouses to share their thoughts about what makes this city tick. Our panel includes:
Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist with a focus in Chinese food. She has bylines in L.A. Weekly, KCET, and the L.A. Times. Twitter: @dearclarissa
Garrett Snyder has previously served as an editor for Los Angeles Magazine, Tasting Table, and as a staff writer for L.A. Weekly. Twitter: @G_Sny
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA. Twitter: @overoverunder
Tony Chen, known by his pseudonym Sino Soul, is a blogger, OG chowhounder, and contributor to Eater LA. Twitter: @sinosoul
Caroline Pardilla, aka Caroline on Crack, is a drinks blogger and contributor to Los Angeles Magazine and Eater LA. Twitter: @Carolineoncrack
Natalie James is a blogger, food writer for SBE, and prolific Instagrammer. Twitter: @NJinLA
Amy Duan is the founder of Chihuo, the most popular Chinese-language food and lifestyle website. Twitter: @amydfy
Responses have been edited and condensed.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about the food here?
Clarissa says: That Chinese restaurants have secret menus.
Farley says: I think the notion that Los Angeles is a ‘relaxed’ town, that it’s a city where fine dining doesn’t hit the same highs as in places like London or New York City or Paris, is earned. But that doesn’t mean our food is less focused, or less intricate, just because it lacks a white tablecloth underneath it.
Tony says: None. L.A. loves kale. We loves avocados. We dine al fresco all year. We’ve left fine dining by the wayside, we have gorgeous strawberries in January, and every server is pitching a pilot. It’s all true. But please don’t move here because the drought is real and scary.
What makes it the most exciting dining destination in the country?
Garrett says: There’s a kind of insular diversity here that allows restaurants to cater specifically to an ethnic group rather than water down their cooking in order to have mass appeal. A lot of our best chefs take inspiration from the sheer variety of eating cultures in L.A., and I think that helps foster a sense of creativity. There’s also a certain lack of tradition in L.A. There is no one doctrine saying, “This is the way things should look or taste.” I think Roy Choi made a point somewhere about how most of the cities on the East Coast can trace their culinary roots back to Europe in some way, but the backbone of L.A. is an odd hybrid of Asia and Latino culture, among other things.
Farley says: Organic bagels made by a real-estate broker from the deck oven of a Mexican panaderia? An awesome burger spot in the back room of a liquor store right by the beach? Sure! L.A. is exciting because that possibility is endless. If you ate like I do in L.A., but in a different city like Seattle, Portland, Nashville or even Chicago, it feels like you’d run out of discoveries at a certain point. But in L.A., there’s no horizon line.
Tony says: Easily accessible multi-ethnic cuisine covering the most territory, at nearly tolerable prices. And there’s parking.
Caroline says: Since we really have no seasons, we have a bounty of fresh ingredients to constantly play with. The bartenders are always experimenting with new styles, new mediums, and even unusual homemade ingredients.
Natalie says: Our Mexican and Chinese food culture alone makes us the best culinary destination. I am willing to fight anyone who disagrees.
Talk about the power of bloggers in L.A. It seems like they have more clout than elsewhere in the country, and play a big role in driving the conversation.
Clarissa says: The beauty of bloggers is that they tend to be very specific and become the trusted source in whatever neighborhood they frequent the most or whatever cuisine they eat the most. It gets really detailed here in the blogging world. We even have sugar experts and boba trackers.
Amy says: The bloggers here help build a bridge between the eaters and the restaurants. And, of course, they drive competition.
Garrett says: This city requires boots on the ground to find and tell stories. Take Wes Avila of Guerilla Tacos, for example—when I was at L.A. Weekly, I was the first person to write about his taco stand (#humblebrag), and it was just because I saw a guy selling tacos outside a coffee shop. I had no idea what to expect. There was no press release or media event—it was just a guy on Twitter. That’s the same way Kogi blew up. Writers might not like to admit, but in places like NYC the food media is increasingly dependent on insider access, which means they spend more time fighting over exclusive details on Alex Stupak’s new taqueria rather than heading up to the Bronx to find some al pastor (the honorable Robert Sietsema not withstanding, of course).
Farley says: Are bloggers really more influential in Los Angeles than elsewhere? Maybe. But a lot of that influence comes within a relatively tight circle. Clarissa gets to talk passionately about Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine because she has a cultural attachment and a mind and palate for the stuff. She’s the best person doing that in Los Angeles, and already on the national radar. Bill Esparza gets to wax poetic about tacos, tortas, and tlayudas because he has a connection to the regions of Mexico that he’s writing about and experiencing. Maybe more than other places, Los Angeles has enough volume of these types of cuisines that it’s possible to have someone dive so deep without needing to come up for air. And so you can have a little slice for so many people—the general food discussion folks and the hardcore cuisine-specific writers, and the people who look at food as a gateway to talking about the environment, and so on and so forth. Everyone gets to enjoy their corner.
What is the worst thing about eating in L.A.?
Clarissa says: Traffic. And how everything is so spread apart.
Garrett says: The fragmentation of L.A. neighborhoods can be a double-edged sword. A terrific, cutting-edge restaurant in Echo Park can close due to lack of business (RIP, Allumette), but a god-awful restaurant located in say Venice or West Hollywood can somehow do loads of covers. Restauranteurs are probably the most risk adverse people on earth—naturally, given their failure rate—so it’s frustrating but expected to see restaurants here play it safe so often (deviled eggs and short ribs everywhere!). Equally frustrating, though, is when a chef opens a restaurant with super ambitious food, but manages to produce something half-assed in every other regard (service, design, etc.). As much as I love the casual vibe and unpretentious aspect of L.A. dining, a little more professionalism is always welcome.
Farley says: I do think there’s a downside to casual dining, at least in its execution at some places. Bad service is the most obvious way that lax behavior shows itself, and Los Angeles has a real problem with sub-par service overall. We also tend to cram tables a little too closely together, and let real human adults have dinner while wearing cargo shorts and sandals. Also, this goes without saying really, but Los Angeles is just not built for late dinner reservations followed by a night of drinking. There are some clustered neighborhood exceptions, but even those have their distance issues relative to where your apartment might be. As a result, groups of people tend not to bounce from place to place over the course of one evening. We find our spots, everyone meets there, and then we all Uber home separately.
For you, what restaurant at the moment best crystalizes L.A. dining?
Clarissa says: Szechuan Impression. I know I’m biased because my beat is Chinese food, but they do a beautifully plated tea-smoked rib that takes two days of prep-work to put together. The green tea that is used for smoking is sourced directly from Sichuan. This dish combines the American love for ribs and the traditional Sichuan art of tea-smoking. And I think that is the core of Angeleno dining: Making up your own dish and being fiercely unique about it. Copycat concepts don’t do well here.
Garrett says: For me, it’s Night + Market Song, which I know has already been saturated with praise. It’s easy to look at it as an outsider and say, “oh, another place serving hyper-authentic Thai food,” but to me it’s a really singular vision. The wine list is one of the most interesting in the city, but you can order a tall boy of Miller High Life for $5. The food is jarring but it’s personal. It’s a place where you get the sense that your mental comfort level isn’t really the most relevant aspect. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it’s kind of the postmodern idea of a restaurant, which I think meshes with the city perfectly. It’s the type of restaurant that could only exist in L.A.
Farley says: Maybe Faith & Flower? It’s downtown, where arguably the hottest action is restaurant-wise; it tackles these global flavors in approachable ways that are still delicious for everyone; it’s opulent inside but still really casual and relaxed and fun; and there’s a cocktail program on hand that is among the best in the city. The only other option would be like the Tire Shop Taqueria—cheap, delicious, region-specific food done with love (handmade tortillas, of course) and hidden away in an underserved community. That’s the real story of L.A. dining.
Natalie says: I think dumpling powerhouse Din Tai Fung has managed to become the spot that all walks of life enjoy, and that is a remarkable accomplishment. Any place that brings all walks of life together is something I’d call true Los Angeles. When people are willing to drive more than 5 miles and wait up to an hour, you know there’s something to it.
Favorite go-to casual spot?
Clarissa says: MYO Sushi in Rowland Heights. It’s a make-your-own sushi bowl restaurant that comes with a balanced bowl of raw fish with seasoned rice, a soup, and a smattering of vegetables and tempura on a cafeteria-style platter.
Garrett says: Mariscos Jalisco taco truck. On the days when I’m not set on trying some place new, which is pretty rare among food writers, I have this magnetized pull that draws me towards mariscos trucks, and this, of course, is the king of them all. The idea that I can get in my car and within 10 minutes (parking is never an issue!) be scarfing down fried shrimp tacos, aguachile tostadas, and seafood cocteles in the shade, is still unreal to me. It seriously blows my mind that I have this in my life.
Farley says: I think it has to be Sqirl. Jessica Koslow’s food continues to be a hit with newcomers and neighborhood folks alike, and it offers that rare mix of quality and quantity, at a price that isn’t astronomical. I can get hearty rice bowls or a simple plate of eggs and sausage, then come back for lunch and dine on salads, sandwiches, or whatever else she’s making that day — which often includes some insane new pastry using two disparate flavors I’d never previously considered. Not bad for a restaurant the size of a broom closet.
Tony says: Huge Tree Pastry
Caroline says: Short Order is my default because it’s close to where I live, the burgers are delicious, and you can’t go wrong with a Julian Cox cocktail program.
Natalie says: Every place within a 5 mile radius of my home in San Gabriel, but I am particularly fond of Beijing Pie House.