Consuming L.A. Earlier than It Eats Itself: Los Angeles lacks a signature dish regardless of its vibrant meals scene
Some cities, over the course of several decades, have cemented a singular food into their identities. The Philly cheesesteak is foundational to Philadelphia’s reputation as a city. Deep-dish pizza is baked into the brick buildings of Chicago. Boston is sealed together with clam chowder and custard from a cream pie. These foods extract the cadence of a city and personalize an intangible culture. They are also capable of inciting fire-filled debates, attracting an ungodly amount of tourists and comforting a traveler returning home.
From an outsider’s perspective, even cities filled with thousands of diverse voices can have a unifying dish. New York City, as flavorful as it is, can be boiled down to a dollar slice pizza (or maybe a slice of cheesecake).
But living in Los Angeles, my view of our iconic food is muddled. As the rumored birthplace of the cobb salad and the French dip, Los Angeles has had its fair share of historical foods, and, with its constant trudge toward novelty, Los Angeles has also birthed its fair share of modern trends. But the French dip doesn’t gleam from shiny postcards at LA tourist traps, nor does the cobb salad, a slice of pizza, a specialty dessert or cut of meat.
What is the quintessential food icon of Los Angeles?
In the world of regional variations, the LA hot dog is a standout. The sizzling bacon-wrapped street dogs that cut through any post-event drunken stupor can only be found in Southern California, and Los Angeles has the highest concentration. Even beyond the danger dog, Pink’s Hot Dogs attracts a long line of tourists who are eager to try its famous loaded toppings. The Dodger Dog has cultivated a substantial fanbase of its own. Alas, these other hot dog purveyors are recycling the inventions of other cities — stealing from the sacred cult of the American hot dog. In the end, only the danger dog is enough to represent Los Angeles, and even that lacks the notoriety necessary to make it an icon.
In the world of movie stars and health gurus, there are several popular foods that Los Angeles pioneered or propagated. Green juice, avocado toast, smoothie bowls: All are modern emblems of diet-conscious Angelenos. But it is hard to pinpoint Los Angeles as the true owner of any of these foods — often, this city takes a healthful dish from another trendy city (Seattle, Portland, Palo Alto) and infuses it with cultural relevance, which then results in online fame. And, honestly, no city should be represented by Goop’s clay and maca diet.
Maybe the iconic food of Los Angeles was brought from overseas. Legend has it that, in the fancy dining rooms of 1980s LA, sushi was transformed from a foreign oddity to a luxurious specialty with the creation of the American palette-friendly California roll, with later add-ins like cream cheese, tempura and even steak . Now, Los Angeles is home to some of the best sushi in the country. But even then, the best LA sushi can only replicate Japanese sushi. With a cooking style so dependent on method and mastery, sushi can never truly belong to Los Angeles — its heart will always remain in Japan.
In my mind, the best contender for LA’s most iconic food is the taco. While borrowed from Mexico, the amount of variation and revolution in Los Angeles tacos make them something that uniquely belong to this city. The tacos at BS Taqueria, Guerrilla Tacos, Guisados and Mariscos Jalisco are meticulous masterpieces, blending regional influence with California’s emphasis on fresh flavor. And the street and truck taco is ubiquitous in LA, rivaling the dirt dog in nighttime popularity. But with such a colorful assortment of tacos, it is impossible to determine which taco is the LA taco — Los Angeles is divided by taco pluralism, where no taco is ubiquitous and most are delicious.
Perhaps, from an outsider’s perspective, there is no iconic Los Angeles food because this city is still buried under the preconception that Angelenos are too concerned with their health to value good food. Perhaps LA is just a city of poke bowls and celery juices, where vegan alternatives reign supreme. It wouldn’t be surprising if other cities saw Los Angeles in this way — the Michelin critics said the same when they stopped reviewing LA restaurants in 2010.
This might have been true 10 years ago but certainly not now. Los Angeles was constructed on delicious beef sandwiches, overblown hot dogs and signature salads, but it was completed with some of the best Korean and Japanese food in the country, tacos worth waiting in line at 2 am for and ingredient-forward restaurants that transform our expectations of Los Angeles as a city preoccupied with its image.
Maybe Los Angeles is better off without a signature dish. Without a chunk of restaurants churning out a monotonous menu, this city has diversified itself, offering a multitude of reputable dishes instead. If the taco is the winner of the icon debate, there are hundreds of distinctive tacos to try across the city. If the dirt dog is the winner, it says something else about Los Angeles — as a city known for its superficiality, an unassuming cart on the side of the road seems like the last place to look for legacy, yet we cherish those dogs with fervor .
The debate rages on, but I take comfort in knowing that Los Angeles refuses to be boiled down to a singular dish because it feels as unexpected and diverse as the city itself.
Christina Tiber is a junior writing about food. Her column, “Eating LA Before It Eats Itself,” runs every other Thursday.
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