Gary Shteyngart takes on Los Angeles’ restaurants and eats his way through the best food in the city right now.
I’m East Coast through and through, but I’m not ashamed to say it: I love L.A. My first encounter with the mega-megalopolis took place at the advanced age of 30. A college friend of mine had a cousin who rented a place by the beach. Which particular beach, I do not recall, but the path to the sands was lined with giant swaths of bougainvillea, which made me think for just a brief moment that I was in southern France. That notion was dispelled when we reached the beach, which abutted a body of water that was no mere Mediterranean. I had never seen the Pacific Ocean before, had understood its vastness only on childhood maps. Made placid by the better portion of a bottle of California Chardonnay, I walked into the moonlit water, bent down, and slapped the onrushing waves. Somewhere up (or down) the coast, an enormous industrial building, a waste-processing plant, perhaps, smoked its way deep into the night. But I refused to let go of the moment’s magic, because that lump of ugliness amid the grandeur of the Pacific was Southern California too. I continued to walk into the ocean, the water dark blue around my legs, the temperature, as always, perfectly set to sixty-eight degrees, my gaze resolutely drawn toward Asia in the infinite distance. And I thought: Oh, this isn’t so bad.
Video: T+L Editors’ Favorite Los Angeles Restaurants
“Twenty years ago Los Angeles was a food desert,” says Brad Johnson, one of the partners behind Willie Jane, a restaurant in Venice specializing in, of all things, Southern cuisine. My first visit to L.A. was only a decade ago and I remember being wowed by AOC, a restaurant on Third Street near the depressing bulk of the Beverly Center mall, which combined the freshest market ingredients with an easygoing Gallic flair. Now that unparalleled freshness—so farm-to-table, so snout-to-tail—has crept into every cuisine under the always-smiling SoCal sun, including Willie Jane’s deviled eggs. They pop right out of the chickens in the community garden next door, to be filled with marinated shrimp and deposited upon the froth of a convincing lemon aioli.
I’m here in Los Angeles to write about a dozen or so of the city’s best new restaurants. Brunching on Willie Jane’s bright Venice patio, I stare at the charred red Fresno chile that accompanies a fantastically textured dish of shrimp grits. I sink into the grapefruit brûlée, which redeems this recently maligned fruit with mint and blueberries and a glaze of brown sugar. Govind Armstrong, the beloved, dreadlocked chef, comes out to say hi as I finish off a Coal Miner’s Daughter, a bourbon drink made beyond delicious with macerated ginger and lavender honey. It is then that I notice something unusual about the clientele around me: unlike the bulk of upscale Angelenos, they are not uniformly thin and fit. The man next to me is positively buxom. I know this is a Southern restaurant and there are certain standards to uphold, but still, we’re in Venice, with all the beachy buffness that neighborhood entails. As I digest a round of deviled eggs, my belly happily makes dolphin greeting sounds with other bellies across the room. Next door, past the chickens, the Second Community Baptist Church reverberates with prayer, and a few blocks down, at a bus stop, a Vietnamese woman holds up an umbrella against the afternoon sun. There is nothing more quintessentially West Coast than this.
I love Los Angeles, but I can never truly understand it, because I cannot drive, or at least not well enough to survive the 405. Acknowledging the Woody Allen–like implications of being a bad-driving New Yorker, I decide to test out the Uber app. Uber allows users to request a nearby car and driver to take them around the city. And so a motley collection of Alis and Yakovs shuttle me from meal to meal, commenting at length on the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict, the cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Glendale, and the importance of owning the right car in L.A. “If you don’t have a Bentley in this town, you’re nothing!” the Uber owner of a Ford Focus shouts at me. “Nothing!” Just then a Bentley swings past us onto Wilshire Boulevard. We contemplate our station in life.
As a ferocious heat wave descends upon the city, I Uber my way to L.A.’s Chinatown to check out Chego, Roy Choi’s new place specializing in rice bowls. It’s impossible to overstate Choi’s contribution to this city’s mobile-food infrastructure. The Kogi Korean barbecue taco trucks, which roam the streets of the metropolis and can be snared by following social media, have helped to make life in this city of haves and have-nots just a bit more democratic. Or as Choi himself tells me, “I live on the streets, I feed the streets.”
Clad in a black L.A. Lakers cap, black shorts, and a black Stüssy Yo! MTV Raps T-shirt, Choi is an amiable bear of a man and a local hero. Half of Chego’s customers seem to be snapping photos of him as he bustles around his newest store. Chego is situated opposite a coin-operated Winnie-the-Pooh ride in the courtyard of what may have been our nation’s first contemporary ethnic mall. Choi’s family owned a string of stores and sold homemade kimchi and generally embodied the full blast of Korean immigrant life, SoCal style. The experience shaped not just Choi’s attitude toward food, but toward everything. This is a smart and sensitive chef who knows exactly what he’s talking about and how he became who he is. “Asian kids couldn’t show off our foods, our school lunches growing up,” he tells me. “You were opening yourself up for ridicule. We hid our family food. Cheap Asian rice bowls formed what I really loved. It was a treat my father would take us to.”
Why did he decide to tackle this genre, a distant, cosmopolitan relative of Korean bibimbap? “Asian kids in America, if you opened up their refrigerators and threw everything in a bowl, you would get this mix of life and culture.” As he talks, I dip into the rice bowls in front of me, occasionally washing down the flavors with a mandarin Jarritos Mexican soda. The “sour cream hen house” bowl is an outrageous but intuitive mix of flavors, the sour-cream sambal clearly one of the greatest culinary inventions of this decade. The slow-cooked “chubby” pork belly crunches with pickled radishes. The “ooey gooey” fries (bring on that sour-cream sambal again!) are like a vegetarian, Asian answer to poutine.
“We want to serve delicious, healthy, full-flavored food below ten dollars,” Choi says. The clientele he’s looking for? “Pretty girls who come in without makeup and chill.” Choi’s latest project is the boutique Line hotel, a Korean-flavored venture in K-town that opened in January, for which Choi is providing the “food, beverage, and culture.” His dream is “a private club for the public where anyone can walk in and jump in our pool.”
After the streetwise egalitarianism of Roy Choi, I Uber clear across town to Marina del Rey to sample Paiche, the newest offering from Ricardo Zarate. This is the third restaurant from the Peruvian-born Zarate, whose Mo-Chica and Picca are beloved by nearly every Angeleno foodie I’ve ever met. A cavernous Peruvian-Japanese izakaya with lunchtime music imported directly from a Minsk disco, Paiche is part of a large and sad apartment complex that all but screams Marina del Rey. On the plus side, there are lots of charming middle-aged Latina ladies crackling away at their chicharrones de pescado, and the pisco sour is the happiest of drinks at 1 p.m., brimming with Angostura bitters and organic egg whites. The open kitchen makes you feel positively Hemingwayesque as you watch a tall man bravely cutting up a humongous kampachi.
Speaking of giant fish, the restaurant’s eponymous paiche, a native of the Amazon basin, happens to be one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. It tastes firm and meaty; my dining companion and I place it in the same textural universe as abalone. But it’s only the beginning. The honey-slathered uni-shrimp toast is completely distinct from any other sea-urchin dish I’ve encountered. It’s the perfect, if unexpected, combination of honey and sea, and easily one of my favorite dishes on this trip. Even Zarate’s crunchy version of quinoa, the ancient grain no one can shut up about these days, is more than fine by me.
Gorged on oversize Amazonian fish, I head north to the Superba Snack Bar, on Venice’s Rose Avenue, the beach town’s burgeoning alternative to the well-established and often predictable Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Inside this bright and airy house-made-pasta joint there’s a typical Venice crowd radiating life. Here, every man from age 20 to 70 has a full head of hair and the women look almost newborn. I drink a chilly El Porto, an homage to white port, Prosecco, and orange peel, while listening to the cheerful hostess give the English language a workout on the phone: “We’ll just communicate when you guys get here.”
I dig into a salad of roasted white peaches and coconut “burrata,” which the server explains is a “coconut cream transformed into a kind of paste that’s sort of like burrata.” The dishes are described by the staff, accurately I might add, as “super awesome.” The most super awesomest dish of the day may be a smoked bucatini carbonara. It’s the eggiest, wettest carbonara ever, with pasta slowly turning the consistency of porridge lost beneath a hailstorm of black pepper. It’s as if an intelligent and unabashed extraterrestrial species got their hands on a Roman cookbook and then just turned the dial up to 11. “Here you go my dear, enjoy,” a server says as the poached egg is expertly placed over my dense, delicious mush.
“High-end food is better in New York than in Los Angeles,” says my friend David, who works in the entertainment industry and travels to New York a lot, as we settle down to a Thai meal at the popular West Hollywood joint Night & Market. He may be right, but what I wouldn’t give to have a Thai place of this caliber and authenticity open up around the corner from my apartment in Manhattan. Or, as my friend Nina put it: “If you ask them for Thai spicy, you will get Thai spicy.” We don’t ask, but spicy it is. David and I are sitting below the requisite portraits of young King Bhumibol and his wife and the requisite offerings to the gods. “It looks like a Silver Lake crowd,” David says, as I note the near-ubiquity of facial hair. To continue the izakaya motif from Paiche, I order a buttery pig collar with a tallboy of Chang beer, savoring the great spicy mouthfuls of delicate pork. I follow it up with a lemongrass-covered and bird’s-eye-chile-studded moo sadoong, or “startled pig.” David, one of the most intrepid and enthusiastic eaters I know, is grazing on a salt-crusted branzino and a papaya salad whose chiles explode like gastric fireworks. “I just burned my face off,” he says, but doesn’t stop eating. This is spicy you can feel in your gums. Only the Hawaiian sweet bread with ice cream, served for dessert, can put out the fire.
The next night I decide to give L.A.’s idea of “high-end food” a spin. Ludo Lefebvre, the French-born genius behind the city’s pop-up cult restaurants called LudoBites, has opened Trois Mec in a strip mall off Melrose at the rather un-gentrified edge of tony Hancock Park. According to one of Ludo’s chefs, unspeakable acts are committed in the alley behind the restaurant, and sometimes inside it. “A guy in a bulletproof vest ran in at 11 p.m. and said, ‘I need to hide!’”
Ludo’s crew is very entertaining, their attitude matching their food word-for-bite. If you sit by the chef’s counter, Ludo himself will shoot the breeze with you and that alone will be worth the price of admission. “So sorry my reach,” he might say with his French accent as he slings a delectable dish of avocado, sushi rice, and salt-cod cream your way. Sitting this close to the gods also gives you the chance to admire Ludo’s epic, elbow-deep tattoos up close.
My dining companion is another David who works in the entertainment industry. Mirror and marble have been foisted upon the small space, a former pizzeria whose exterior is largely intact (the sign out front still reads raffallo’s pizza), and the overall effect is that of a tiny, in-the-know refuge amid a sea of urban blight.
And, oh, the food. An amuse-bouche of buckwheat popcorn that tastes like postmodern kasha, the buckwheat immeasurably improved by the rice wine. A delicious dish of raw beef riding a wave of smoky eggplant, which is followed by one of Ludo’s most famous dishes—a “potato pulp” of extraordinary complexity that Ludo dismisses as the height of simplicity. “I hope you understand what I say—just potato and butter.” Well, not quite. There’s an onion soubise, a kind of onion-butter compote, soaking up the potato hash, and, atop this wondrous starch, a pinch of bonito flakes that takes this dish to a different planet entirely. Lest you worry about the edginess of the neighborhood, the tattoos, and the potato abuse, Trois Mec is also effortlessly high-end. “I like how quiet this place is,” David tells me. The amount of food on the set menu, usually an occasion for American bloat, is also judicious.
The reservation system at Trois Mec is beyond my comprehension. Apparently you have to wake up at 8 a.m. on alternating Fridays to buy “tickets.” But this doesn’t stop obsessive Ludo-heads from swarming the place. “I see people come eight times,” Ludo says.
“I have my clock set,” says the guy next to me, dipping his truffled grilled cheese into Ludo’s campfire ice cream.
Eating in Los Angeles is fun. I like being called “buddy,” “dude,” and even “dog,” as I’m served my morning coffee (“Here you go, dog”). The attitude at Bar Amá, the hybridist chef Josef Centeno’s new place in Downtown (he’s previously toyed with Mediterranean and North African flavors at his much-loved Bäco Mercat), isn’t quite up to “dog” levels, but it’s pleasantly festive and informal. The queso dip seems as comforting and odd as an early Beck tune (I kept humming “Get crazy with the Cheez Whiz” while eating it). The puffy taco takes me back to something served at the Oberlin College dining hall, except it is appropriately spicy and comes with actual beef. For a purely grown-up choice, try the amazing cauliflower with cilantro-pesto dish with cashews and pine nuts, which elevates that pale vegetable to a new level. Inside, an adult party beneath endless industrial tubing (cue the Mexican fried ice cream and the mezcal). Outside, middle-aged skateboarders sail by in the dusk as downtown L.A. lives out its strange new gentrified existence.
But if you really want serious fun at your dinner table, nothing can top West Hollywood’s new Connie & Ted’s, from Michael Cimarusti, the chef whose Providence is widely lauded. The food comes from that mythical place Californians call “back East”—more precisely, it’s a West Coast homage to the Rhode Island clam shack.
I’m out tonight with my friend Nina, who works in film, and her husband, John, an architect. “This is the most expensive restaurant that’s been recently built,” John says of the cavernous open space, its light fixtures twinkling from within what look like lobster traps. “It’s very porous—California indoor-outdoor.”
A loud ship’s bell sounds to recognize a gentleman who has ordered a two-pound lobster. I appreciate the kick and smoke of the linguica sausage in the Portuguese fish stew, with its hake, mussels, and Manila clams. There’s also a platonic lobster roll, served hot or cold, and the Shigoku and Kumamoto oysters simply cannot be refused.
On the previous night at Connie & Ted’s, I had helped myself to several glasses of the light and crisp Noble Ale Works Pistol Whip’d Pilsner, which reminded me of the fact that Nina and John are the only friends I have in Southern California who actually still drink booze. It is time for me to go native and drink the local favorite—water. Ray’s & Stark Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art features, yes, a water menu, and one bound in handsome blue leather. A menu of the waters of the world must have a worldly sommelier, and that person would be Martin Riese, who, in his stylish glasses and striped suit, looks perfect for the part.
With a delightful German accent, water sommelier Riese describes to me his journey from the Danish border to the watery center of L.A.’s food world: “My whole life I had the North Sea just in front of me. I was always addicted to water.” In 2005 he managed a Berlin restaurant called the First Floor, which featured one of the world’s first water menus, and then published a book called The World of Water. In 2010, he was accredited by the German Trade Association for Mineral Water. And now, he’s in the perfect place—a city where people are perpetually in recovery. “We had the Anonymous Alcoholics come in,” Riese says, “fourteen of them, and they said, ‘Thank you. Now we have something to pair food with.’”
Intrigued, I allow Riese to do just that. He serves the restaurant’s signature dish, a delicious betruffled agnolotti, with a $12 bottle of Danish Iskilde, which, according to Riese, “has the same hints of mushroom and earth.” Next, he presents his own water, Beverly Hills 90H20 ($16), “the first sommelier-crafted water,” which is paired with a Stilton, because “blue cheese has acidity. The blue-cheese acidity goes down because this is very smooth water.” I finish off with a racy, salty Vichy Catalan ($12) and a Stinking Bishop cheese. I am starting to hydrate in a really big way. By the end of the meal it becomes painful to hear the words “Would you like some tap water?” addressed to a pair of visiting Beijing tourists at the next table. As for me, I’ll never drink tap in this town again.
But I will drink beer. To counter the effect of all that healthy Danish water, I Uber down to Koreatown’s Beer Belly, a craft-beer bar that used to serve the spectacular combination of pancakes and beer, but has recently shifted over to duck territory, as in “death by duck,” which features duck-fat fries, duck-skin cracklings, and, for good measure, duck confit. This is the happiest I’ve ever seen Angelenos, a citizenry that’s already not afraid to smile. There’s a pleasant mix of K-town locals and beer fanatics sipping on an insane Craftsman Triple White Sage from Pasadena (yes, it’s triple-brewed with sage), while dipping their sage-roasted duck breast into a sage jus. There are also strips of buttermilk fried chicken and a deep-fried s’mores Pop-Tart that just may save the world. The parking lot smells of a substance that is now all but legal in California, giving you a strong hint of Beer Belly’s peaceful vibe.
It’s my last six hours in Los Angeles, the temperature is skirting three digits, and I am giving Uber a workout. Guisados, the Boyle Heights institution, now has a place in Echo Park that’s within striking distance. I zoom over as my Ukrainian driver explains everything that’s gone wrong with his life thus far (the rent in the San Gabriel Valley could be cheaper, for one thing, and women could love him more). The legendary Guisados opens at 10:30 in the morning and there’s already a large Mexican family completely clad in Dodgers attire chowing down on their morning tacos in the clean, white space, as Sunset streams along outside. I taco down. The chicharrones are as dense as any but with bursts of heavenly fat, the mole is richer than Croesus, the shrimp are smoky, the chuletas a creamy journey through the land of pork and bean. The chicken mole? I better shut up before I embarrass myself about the chicken mole. I drink a cantaloupe agua fresca that’s an unabashed toast to California’s climate and possibility.
All my trips to Los Angeles end the same way my first one did, when my friend told me of a magical fast-food burger place called In-N-Out, and I fell in love right away. Many tell me that Los Angeles has better, more pedigreed burgers, but I really don’t care. When I see an In-N-Out, I swallow reflexively. By now I know to get my fries well done and my double-double burger Animal Style: mustard-cooked, and choked with grilled onions. I stop by the one on Orange and Sunset on the way to the airport, no longer confused by the bible verse printed on the soda cup, John 3:16, even though I know the verse’s promise of “eternal life” is not fully compatible with the double meat patties and double cheese going down my gullet. The man next to me carefully wipes down his own table after finishing his gargantuan burger feast. I guess that’s the final strange thing about In-N-Out. Like Roy Choi’s Chego, like the temple of the Ludovites who wake up early to buy tickets to Trois Mec, like so many other places I’ve visited, this is a community.
T+L contributing editor Gary Shteyngart’s new book is Little Failure: A Memoir (Random House).
T+L Guide to Los Angeles Restaurants
Bar Amá 118 W. Fourth St., Downtown. $$
Beer Belly 532 S. Western Ave., Koreatown. $$
Chego 727 N. Broadway, #117, Chinatown. $
Connie & Ted’s 8171 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. $$$
Guisados 1261 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park. $
Night & Market 9043 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. $$
Paiche 13488 Maxella Ave., Marina del Rey. $$
Ray’s & Stark Bar 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Hancock Park. $$$
Superba Snack Bar 533 Rose Ave., Venice. $$
Trois Mec 716 N. Highland Ave., Hancock Park. $$$
Willie Jane 1031 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. $$$
Restaurant Pricing Key
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150
Appeared as “Eating L.A.” in T+L Magazine