The seek for America’s finest meals cities: Los Angeles
Memory lane is strewn with quirky places to eat, the hat-shaped Brown Derby among the best-known. “Food as spectacle” goes back at least to 1897, says Josh Kun, author of this year’s historical restaurant romp, “To Live and Dine in LA” That’s the year Al Levy switched from serving oysters on a sidewalk to offering them in a public dining room. The pushcart became a beacon, displayed on the roof of Al Levy’s Ouster House. In 1928, MGM studio artists built a restaurant for film star Fatty Arbuckle: the Plantation Cafe in Culver City, a pretend plantation house. The same year, at the Jail Cafe on Sunset Boulevard, diners seated in mock cells supped on chicken and steak dinners served by waiters dressed as inmates. “Let’s go to jail!” an ad from the era beckoned.
To find the best immigrant food, an explorer has to identify where its cooks congregate: East LA for Central American and Mexican, Glendale for Armenian and Middle Eastern, Koreatown in Central LA for specialties including octopus soup and grilled wild boar, and Studio City for some of the best sushi bars on the West Coast. Until the 1980s, most Chinese menus in Los Angeles were found in New and Old Chinatown, according to “Live and Dine in LA” Kun writes that a wave of immigrants and developers shifted the action east into Monterey Park, a city in Los Angeles County , and launched a trend: “Chinese food for Chinese diners.” (No one could tell me why, but the affluent neighborhood of Brentwood brims with Italian trattorias.)
How to tag the best tacos when they’re seemingly everywhere? Esparza, the Mexican American food expert, suggests purveyors that specialize in just a few items and that don’t cook steak, hog’s maw and tripe together on the same flat iron; and cooks who work “fast and clean,” as if they know what they’re doing. He also advises looking for top-quality ingredients (fresh and fiery manzano peppers, orange when ripe, are a good-if-rare sign) and playing like a reporter in front of a cart, stand or storefront. “Take time to ask them where they’re from,” he says of the operators. “Little Mexico is better than big Mexico.” Translation, por favor? A taco pegged to a region or, better yet, a hometown speaks to pride of place — and, hence, product.
Los Angeles covers about 500 square miles, a good excuse for some people to stay home and enjoy the California lifestyle depicted for decades in Sunset magazine and a fact that Besha Rodell, restaurant critic of LA Weekly, says she incorporates into her rating system, stars being assigned “based on how far you should drive, not about how fancy” a restaurant is. Whether distance is a negative or a positive for the food-obsessed depends on whom you talk to. Gold says that a trip from the West Side to the San Gabriel Valley for Chinese that might take 90 minutes during the work week might take less than half that time — “a magic carpet ride” — on the weekend. While the state’s stringent drinking-and-driving penalties have probably kept the cocktail scene from being more robust, say insiders, the debut of the app-based Uber in Los Angeles three years ago has been a boon to diners in general.
In the introduction to his 2014 roundup of 101 Best Restaurants in the Los Angeles Times, Gold praised his subjects and their passion this way: “When you ask local chefs privately about their favorite restaurants, they are far more likely to mention Kobawoo House, Colonia Taco Lounge and Sapp Coffee Shop than they are Spago and Ink. No matter how much they admire LA’s most advanced kitchens, they are more excited by the possibilities of kimchi, huauzontle [a native Mexican vegetable] and fish sauce than they are by lobster and truffles.”