Even parochial Japanese uni lovers acknowledge Santa Barbara sea urchin as the world’s finest: a glistening jewel of briny-nutty-sweetness. At The Hungry Cat (sea urchin $18) the uni arrives fresh each morning and is served in the spiny shell, seasoned with absolutely nothing, to be scooped up and savored by some lucky soul with a spoon. Too bad about the dining room, wedged behind a Borders bookstore and possessing neither charm nor a view—but you’ll be too focused on the silken glory of the uni to notice.
Hardcore Vietnamese-food devotees will send you to the corner of Orange County known as Little Saigon—but how about a pho fix here in L.A.? Seek out Pho Café (lunch for two $35), hidden beside a Crown Escrow outlet in a derelict mini-mall. Despite the lack of signage, the long, narrow room is jammed from noon to night with Silver Lake and Echo Park hipsters, each of them nursing an outsize bowl of Vietnam’s beloved, breathtakingly fragrant noodle soup. Best option: the pho tai gan, with toothsome beef tendon and ribbons of raw sirloin that slowly cook in the clove- and cinnamon-spiced broth.
Has any chef been so equally revered and derided? Twenty-eight years on from the original Spago, Wolfgang Puck earns all the flak for overexposure—the supermarket pizzas, the airport and casino cash-ins. But the first celebrity chef can still bring the heat. His latest, Cut (dinner for two $180), is the best steak house in town on a good night, when the dry-aged rib eye is seared just-so, Richard Meier’s dining room gleams like a camel-colored Lexus, and Tom Cruise doesn’t cut you in line at the hostess stand. (Hey, it happened to us.)
X: X Marks the Spot
Whether food trucks are the new bacon or just another passing thing, no trend has inspired such exuberant devotion among L.A. food bloggers, for whom the fad is tailor-made (vendors’ locations are continuously updated via Twitter). Kogi put the food truck on the national Google map with its Korean/Filipino–inflected taco: a deeply weird conflation of corn, sesame, cabbage, and sweet-spicy pork that manages to evoke a Oaxacan mole, an Alsatian choucroute, a McDonald’s salad, and a packet of Fun Dip—in a wholly good way. Now hungry flash mobs are targeting other roving kitchens: Nom Nom (nomnomtruck.com) serves sublime banh mi and Vietnamese tacos, while Coolhaus (eatcoolhaus.com) builds ice cream sandwiches to order in architect-inspired flavors like Louis Kahntaloupe.
When you’re craving Mexican on the East Side and Lotería Grill seems too far to drive, that’s when you pull up to Yuca’s (carne asada tacos $2, three for $6), still the best taqueria in Los Feliz after 34 years, and order a brace of juicy, smoky, citrus-tinged carne asada tacos to devour on the hood of your car: Los Angeles on a paper plate.
The confoundingly underrated Ricardo Zarate—a Lima, Peru, native and former sushi chef—works wonders with Peruvian ceviche at Mo-Chica (lunch for two $40), in the Mercado La Paloma food court and craft market south of Downtown. Zarate’s ceviche del día—sea bass, yellowtail, scallop, whatever’s fresh— is marinated to order in the classic leche de tigre (lime juice spiked with ginger and yellow chiles, so refreshing you could drink a highball of the stuff) and gussied up with cubed yam, choclo corn, and/or sliced red onion. (The cheesy pan-flute soundtrack comes courtesy of the adjacent stall.) That this minor miracle chose such a humble spot to reveal itself speaks volumes about Los Angeles, a city built not on flash and hype but on countless unsung revelations.
Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.