Monday, June 22, 2009

Los Angeles: City of Food Angels

Street tacos: Quintessential LA Cuisine

Although I missed the talk last year regarding "What is LA cuisine," having finally left the city, I can certainly look back on my five years and tell you what characterizes Los Angeles food. It did take me several years to get over the superficiality of the Westside. In fact, living West of the 405 had left a bad taste in my mouth regarding LA's obsession with fads. By the time I graduated from UCLA, I thought I would leave the city thinking this shallow, pretentious image of Beverly Hills would be the one I'd take with me for the entire area. However, this last year I discovered the authenticity of the city actually lay within the unique geography and ethnic makeup of the city. And of course, I made that discovery by eating my way through this food destination.


Several weeks ago, I received a frantic call. My friend was looking for restaurant recommendations for a Chinese business executive flying in for only two days. This guy was coming in by private jet; money was no object. What were some of the best restaurants in LA when you can spend anything you want? Of course the usual contenders made their appearance--Urasawa, Providence, Melisse and the like. But beyond the few, I soon realized that the best food in LA is not the most expensive food. Sure, these restaurants offered what you might characterize as "LA/Californian," but fresh, organic ingredients with a combination of European and Asian influences didn't seem immediately indicative of LA. You could say the same of almost any fine dining restaurant in the world. So what makes LA unique?

Bless the Commutes

One of the most frustrating aspects of the city also makes creates an environment for the best dining. Does it really take two hours to drive ten miles? It can in LA! Everything's so spread out, streets and freeways are packed all day. Stuck on the 10 for the second hour, it is easy to lose sight of the benefits of being so dispersed. Given my upcoming move to New York City, I would hardly call LA a city. Instead, LA is more like a collection of various villages carved out by long running boulevards and concrete rivers. This combination of low-density and high population form ethnic enclaves each offering its own victuals. Unlike cities like San Francisco, the constant influx of new immigrants creates communities that don't exist elsewhere. Being so spread out, these communities don't meld and mix as readily as they do in other denser cities. It usually takes a traveling kitchen to mix Korean and Mexican food, though a drive through Koreatown will convince you that Spanish and Korean are both native languages of Mexico and Korea. The result is communities that have a certain cultural integrity and allowance for diversity within those cultures. The distances between cultural quarters allows restaurants to specialize and become incredibly proficient at a few dishes that would mostly appeal to a homegrown crowd.

Ho-tteok from Pizza Land in K-Town

Where else can I go on a LA Ghetto Goodies marathon and have Korean ho-tteok, fried pancakes filled with brown sugar, and tacos off four taco trucks on the same day? Los Angeles is home to the largest communities of Thai and Vietnamese outside of their respective countries. In fact, North Hollywood is home to the only Thai Town in the United States. I spent almost every Sunday in old Chinatown, and despite its dilapidated charm, it still has a vibrant community. Go further East and you'll run into the newer Chinatown cropping up in San Gabriel Valley. I lived in Westwood; Little Tehran was just down the street. When I felt like eating with my fingers, it was off to Fairfax's Little Ethiopia. The South Bay has a diverse and vibrant enough Japanese community to host a Japanese Marathon without a sushi restaurant. Not to mention almost all of Los Angeles has taquerias and taco trucs.

Cheap Food Draws All

Tostada Mixtiada from Mar Azul

As a consequence of all these immigrant communities, cheap, delicious ethnic foods abound. A seafood tostada is $3 from the Mar Azul taco truck. $7 for the best ramen at Santouka. Indulge in Seven Course of Beef for $14. This is the perfect environment for amassing friendly eating gatherings, and as I've mentioned before, food marathons.

LA's cultural geography makes it rich for food blogging. Instead of just debating the best Japanese restaurant in town, people can claim expertise in the best yakitori, izakaya or ramen. A restaurant can be terrible in all other respects but have one dish be its saving grace. That's the magic of the LA dining scene.

Where to Go From Here

Chocolate cake from Comme ça

As I have emphasized, the beauty in LA food is the influx of new immigrants. But the lack of Old World immigrants have also led to a lackluster collection of European eateries. In future returns to town, I'd like to see growth in French bistros and Italian trattorias. Yet, will this betray the new age cuisines that characterize LA? Maybe a return to classical cuisines wouldn't be so bad. After all, the sushi and Thai fads are fading, but it seems like anything served from a truck is immensely popular.

What are your favorite aspects of LA cuisine culture, and where do you want to see it grow?



kevinEats said...

I'm curious--what did you end up recommending for the Chinese business executive?

Also, as for the future growth of the LA culinary landscape, I'd like to see the emergence of a more "progressive" dining scene, à la Chicago.

Aaron said...

Kevin: I recommended the usual suspects. All the two star restaurants, XIV and Saam.

The "progressive" dining scene I'm guessing like more experimental and nouvelle cooking? That's a good point

kevinEats said...

Yep, a restaurant in the same vein as Alinea would be great, though I don't think we Angelinos are quite ready for that. Actually, I believe Saam is going in the right direction--one step closer to having our very own Minibar here in LA.

You should find out where the Chinese business executive ended up going, and what he thought of the place.

H. C. said...

saw your tweet on that Mr. Money-is-no-object; of course, it's everyone natural inclination to recommend all the spendy places they wish they can afford to go.

Of course, in hindsight, and considering that he's Mr. Money-AND-TIME-is-no-object -- I'd like just put him in my car and take him on progressive (tasting menu, i fyou will) meal through L.A.'s various neighborhoods ~ from the Cali-seasonal scene of the westside, to the eccentric ethnic eats of Little Tehran / Ethiopia / Armenia and the like, to the modern-Mexican-fusion and vibrant bar scene of downtown, and maybe ending the night with something familiar with San Gabriel Valley... LA is just that kinda town for me. There isn't really a singular restaurant I'd recommend to all out-of-towners, but there are certainly a lot of noteworthy options to check out.

And with that note, hopefully with all your farewell meals you carry with you many fond food memories of LA, and here's to you building plenty more in the Big Apple!

Aaron said...

Well said HC. Your progressive tasting menu is starting to sound like a good old-fashioned LA marathon