Even when dynasties topple (sorry, Kobe) or hometown heroes never emerge in the first place (sorry, Dodgers), Los Angeles residents know they can always remedy their blues by hitting up the nearest lonchero for some face time with a plate of carne asada tacos.
It’s a defining experience for those who call themselves native Angelenos, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to peeling back the many layers of the city’s exciting food scene and nightlife. Finding the good stuff, however—the taco stand serving up Tijuana-style asada at the tire shop, the giant soup dumpling hidden in the random strip mall—takes some serious sleuthing.
Because how else would you know that one of the best burgers is served out of a dingy Mexican shack, or that a Jewish deli is the ultimate place to get lit on a Friday night?
To keep you from falling flat on your face, follow these 10 commandments from a group of Angelenos who know what’s up.
1. Go to a Dodger Game—But Avoid The Dodger Dogs.
It may not have the lore of Wrigley or Fenway, but there is something equally transfixing about Dodger Stadium, with its pastel seats and palm trees that have made Chavez Ravine an essential destination since 1962. Even so, Hollywood has been spinning fantasy tales for years, and it’s done a good job at pushing one particular myth that many of us know to be false—that Dodger Dogs are divine tubular specimens. Truth is, they’re mediocre at best when ranked against other ballpark frankfurters. There’s a remedy for that: instead of dropping $20 on lousy stadium food, cheat the system by taking a quick detour to Roy Choi’s Chego! (727 N Broadway, Unit 117) for a portable Korean rice bowl, or dip into Guisado’s (1261 W Sunset Blvd) for the mini taco sampler. This is the true L.A. past time—enjoying tacos and Korean food at the ol’ ballgame.—Justin Bolois
2. Grand Central Market isn’t the only essential market.
The new Grand Central Market is probably on your list when visiting Los Angeles, and rightfully so. But just about a mile away is your gentrification-free zone, the Mercado Olympic, where those in-the-know have always gone for Mexican street-food culture, spices, and special produce. As you slide by families with strollers, between food stores and piñata markets snaking up E. Olympic Blvd, be sure to get L.A.’s best churros—dessert first—then make room for tlacoyos, Mexico City-style quesadillas filled with huitlacoche, squash blossoms, and tinga. Here you’ll also want to try barbacoa from the state of Hidalgo, Guadalajara-style tacos de canasta (steamed tacos), and regional aguas frescas like Guerreran chilate (cacao), lime with chia seeds, and alfalfa. You can sample some fine locally produced pulque, O.J. spiked with cheap Jerez wine, and a raw quail egg while picking up artisanal chicharrones and Tolucan chorizos. Many vendors have been around here for years, but on any given Saturday or Sunday, you never know what might show up. There’s no third-wave coffee to be found here, but everything the old GCM never really was is here.—Bill Esparza (Photo by Bill Esparza)
3. One of the best places to get f*cked up is inside a Jewish deli.
On Fairfax Avenue, in the heart of Supreme-Snapback Country, sits Canter’s Deli, a Jewish institution cranking out pastrami sandwiches and matzo-ball soup to the masses. But the real action is next door in an adjoining dive bar called the Kibitz Room (419 N Fairfax Ave, West Hollywood), where you can get hammed off cheap beer and snack on a bag of poppy-seed and prune rugelach, while 80-year-olds tongue white fish salad in the dining room next door. The contrast is striking—and all the more reason that L.A. rallies behind this Jewish temple of debauchery. The Kibitz Room has been somewhat of a breeding grounds for rock stars too. Owner Marc Canter is long-time friends with Slash, and he helped launch the career of Gun N’ Roses as well as The Red Hot Chili Peppers.—Justin Bolois (Photo by Justin Bolois)
4. Be prepared to eat while sitting on a milk crate or standing up.
Do you think milk crates are only for transporting milk, and curbs are there to separate the street from the sidewalk? Well, you must not be from around here. True Angelenos know that milk crates, curbs, concrete cylinder stumps, and the like make wonderful seating when a chair is unavailable. Have you just purchased a pizza from Gjelina take-away, or an asada taco from your local lonchero, and there’s no empty chair to be found? Sit your ass down on that empty milk crate or tree stump and start feasting. A few tricks of the trade: Don’t freak out if it drips all over your arm. Offer your milk crate to the older gentleman or young child standing next to you. And if there are no crates or spots on the curb left, this most likely means you’ve found an excellent L.A. eating establishment (congrats!), in which case it’s totally acceptable to eat your taco, bánh mi, burrito, papusa, or chopped escarole and sunchoke salad standing up.—Erin Mosbaugh (Photo: Yelp)
5. Embrace the Weirdness of Jumbo’s Clown Room.
Until you’ve been to Jumbo’s Clown Room (5153 Hollywood Blvd), you haven’t seen the light (or that many crinkled one- and two- dollar bills since your last trip to Vegas). One night—hell, one hour—at this infamous dive-y “strip” club is like getting baptized by the Church of Los Angeles, and you immediately earn street cred with any Angeleno. Go after a night of pounding well-made drinks from the R&D Bar at Harvard & Stone, just down the street. There’s no cover at Jumbo’s. Order a whiskey, neat, and take in the scenery: tantalizing non-nude performers of all shapes and sizes who can work a pole like a Cirque-de-Soleil aerial curtain dancer. Would ordering a lap dance here cross the line of “just clowning around”? Yes. Go for it.—Jonathan Cristaldi (Photo: Yelp)
6. Eat French Dip, Day and Night.
Angelenos get ‘saucy’ in a hurry when it comes to proclaiming their French dip allegiances—you’re either in the Philippe the Original (1001 N Alameda St) or Cole’s (118 E 6th St) camp, two DTLA, 100-year-old institutions that both claim to have invented the au jus-soaked sandwich. Here’s the thing—there’s a time and a place for both. Go to Phillipe’s on a Saturday afternoon, where you’ll find city officials and construction workers waiting in line on sawdust floors for their chance to wolf down a lamb dip with sinus-clearing mustard. If you want to ditch the family-fun vibes, wait until evening and make your way to Cole’s, a dimly-lit parlor where you can chase your sandwich with a pickle-back. To finish your night in grand style, walk to the back of Cole’s and open a door. Here you’ll enter a speakeasy called The Varnish, long considered the city’s premier cocktail temple. See? No need to argue. You can have your cake and eat it too.—Justin Bolois (Photos: Yelp)
7. Cure your hangover with birria on weekend mornings.
Birria de chivo, or juicy slow-cooked goat, is one of the best and only reasons to roll out of bed on Saturday or Sunday mornings after drinking too much tequila the night before. Why? Birria is a breakfast food and hangover cure in Mexico, and Los Angeles is a birria-lover’s dream. The city is “home to the most diverse birria specialization in the world,” according to taco scholar Bill Esparza—but if you’re after Jalisco-style birria de chivo, it would be wise to head to Birreria de Don Boni in Boyle Heights (1845 E 1st St). At this sanctuary of all things goat, you can order fall-off-the-bone shanks served with a side of concentrated broth, along with tortillas, cilantro, onions, and all the necessary DIY taco fixins. At the Birria El Güero truck in South L.A. (NE corner of E Slauson Ave and Holmes Ave), you’ll find handmade tortillas along with goat ribs and shanks full of bone marrow on weekend mornings and afternoons—that is, until the birria runs out.—Erin Mosbaugh (Photo by Bill Esparza)
8. Grab a Burger from a tiny Mexican shack.
It takes about three years after moving to Los Angeles to really understand the difference between a good taco and a great taco. Tourists who are blessed with tips from tried-and-true Angelenos head straight for certain taco joints (Ricky’s, Mexicali, Guisados) the second they’re off the plane. But the one to really beeline to is Yuca’s (2056 Hillhurst Ave), a taco stand off Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz. While the tacos are delicious, it’s all about the burger—particularly the double. The patties are cooked on the grill right along with the carne asada, which permeates the meat with flavor like smog suffusing a rare blue sky. The taco stand won a goddamned James Beard award in 2005 in the “America’s Classics” category! And while In-N-Out and Apple Pan can reign supreme as SoCal’s preeminent patty-slingers, there’s just something so L.A. about finding an impeccable burger from a tiny Mexican stand, sharing a parking lot with a liquor store full of bottles that haven’t budged since the joint opened (but business is fine, and so are the burgers).—Jonathan Cristaldi (Photo by Jonathan Cristaldi)
9. Don’t eat Chinese food west of the 710 Freeway.
Many travel guides tell readers to eat like a local while on vacation. But I am here to insist everyone eat like a Chinese tourist while in Los Angeles—that is, if you’re looking for the latest and greatest lamb burger and water-boiled beef. No region has connected mentally with China more than California, and no city in America receives more tourists. When the nouveau Chinese tastemakers visit L.A, they’re bused straight to Monterey Park, Alhambra, and San Gabriel, three San Gabriel Valley cities all east of the 710 freeway. (Notice how there is no mention of Chinatown.) Here you can sample boiled fish with Chengdu green pepper, or soup dumplings from XLB powerhouse Din Tai Fung (1108 S Baldwin Ave, Arcadia). So do yourself a favor and eat like the 686,000 Chinese tourists by heading straight to Szechuan Impressions (1900 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra).—Tony Chen (Photo: Yelp/Din Tai Fung)
10. Don’t Be Fooled by the Generic Strip Mall.
Generic-looking strip malls assert their presence on just about every major intersection in Los Angeles. Don’t ignore them. Everything from gold flake-adorned sushi to homemade Korean banchan can be found inside a worn-out strip mall, along with hole-in-the-wall Peruvian joints and some of the city’s best sushi spots. These eateries sit cheek-to-cheek with liquor stores and laundromats, which simply adds to their charm. A few strip-mall gems that we find ourselves returning to to time and time again: unexpected craft-beer haven Sunset Beer Co. (1498 Sunset Blvd), Korean short-rib mecca Seongbukdong (3303 West 6th St), and Canoga Park sushi oasis Go’s Mart (22330 Sherman Way). Another major perk of strip-mall dining: the convenience of having a parking lot right outside the restaurant.—Erin Mosbaugh (Photo: Facebook/Sunset Beer Co.)