It’s futile to argue that New York isn’t an extraordinary food town, one where you can traverse the globe through a culinary lens; where bold, young master chefs use porcelain plates as unblemished canvases; where you can dine at a Thai food cart or an haute French bistro.
The thing is, Los Angeles is better.
“What?” you say. “No way! Fuhgeddaboutit!” But, it’s true. After all this time in New York’s Michelin-starred shadow, LA’s food revolution has commenced. It’s a city in the throes of its glory days, and it has come armed with the country’s best produce, the most innovative chefs alive, and a knack for setting trends.
1. The Great Food Truck Movement
Since the 1930s, food trucks have been ingrained in the fabric of Los Angeles, from bygone days of roadside burger joints and drive-thrus to gourmet lunch trucks catering to farm-conscious foodies. Later, the trucks spread to recession-plagued young professionals looking for delicious, inexpensive food, and big-time chefs who saw opportunity and artistry in street food. The modern leg of the movement more or less started with Roy Choi, a Le Bernardin alum who revolutionized food with his Kogi BBQ trucks, selling $2 Korean barbecue tacos that had locals lining up by the hundreds, glued to their Twitter accounts waiting for the announced locations. Sure, New York has its own trucks, but it doesn’t come close.
We mentioned Kogi—and yes, Kogi is still king—but The Grilled Cheese Truck is a favorite for anyone with taste buds (if you’ve tried the classic cheese and rib meat and didn’t enjoy it, you’re not an American) and a perfect example of chefs putting haute spins on comfort food. The Coolhaus ice cream truck makes decadent cookies, then tops them with freshly made salted caramel ice cream to create the best ice-cream sandwich in L.A. (yes, better than Diddy Reise.)
2. The Celebrity Chef
L.A. invented the celebrity chef. Out here, where Wolfgang Puck became king more than a decade ago, everything happens on camera, and it was only after L.A. put chefs in the limelight did the celebrity of Jean-Georges and Gabrielle Hamilton explode with book deals and television shows. For our favorite celebrity-chef hot spots, we’d send you first to Spago, the classic Beverly Hills lunchroom that put Puck on the map, where it’s not uncommon to see Barbra Streisand or Tom Cruise dining in the corner. Before Nobu became the international empire it’s become, we had Matsuhisa, the small, eponymous sushi mecca run by Nobu Matsuhisa that redefined Japanese cooking in the country, created a legacy, and became the go-to dinner spot for Madonna and Kanye West.
3. Portrait of a Chef as an Artist
It’s easy for New Yorkers to thumb their noses at L.A.’s food scene; after all, the famed Michelin dropped the City of Angels from its radar. But something extraordinary happened to L.A. in the snobbish aftermath: freed from the conventions of standards, awards, and hypercriticism, L.A. became free to experiment, to loosen up, and to be itself. No, we’re not overlooking Wylie Dufresne and David Bouley of Lower Manhattan fame; we’re just saying L.A.’s new masters are reinventing the wheel right under your nose.
For a master class in cooking, style, and performance art, your first stop is Trois Mec, a three-man act (hence the name) from Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal fame, teaming with Ludo Lefebvre (a French trained, food truck gourmand). The result is a ticketed reservation system and a dining experience akin to seeing the ballet—you buy your (near impossible to land) tickets, you show up to the sparse restaurant hidden inside the old Ruffalo’s Pizza façade, and you experience six courses of eccentric, bold, mind-bending courses of French-inspired plates being prepared in the open kitchen before you.
Ari Taymor (formerly of the Bay Area’s acclaimed flour + water) started Alma as a pop-up, and now that it’s settled into permanence in a largely unmarked space downtown, the restaurant has staked its claim as the city’s most audacious, with a menu changing nightly that includes seaweed baguettes and house-made soda pops, Alma is the country’s foremost unpredictable, forward-thinking hotspot.
Alma serves the community and grows its own food. (Photo: found on Alma-la.com)
What food trend hasn’t sprung from the minds of L.A. folk these past five years? Gourmet burgers, food trucks, pressed juice, it all starts here. If you haven’t tried Father’s Office—the classic L.A. burger of such extreme pretension that they will refuse to give you ketchup, even if you ask—the grass-fed burger is one of the country’s best. Over at Shred Juice, they’re buying their organic-only fruits and vegetables from Fresh Point market every week to cold-press their $7 bottles every morning, serving up orange, pineapple, strawberry, and mint blends for the best, healthiest juice in the city.
5. Viva la Mexico!
New York has everything you could ever need, and even some stuff you didn’t know you wanted, but you just can’t get good Mexican in the Big Apple. Los Angeles is different—it’s the king of authentic Mexican cuisine, specializing in everything from Oaxacan food to the tip of the Yucatan.
The conversation begins with La Casita Mexicana, way over in Bell, a small family-owned spot that’s been earning raves for its authentic vegetable-based Jalisco dishes; the chiles en nogada is the star of the menu.
In Koreatown, Guelaguetza still reigns as the authenticator of Oaxacan food in L.A., with a black mole to rival the finest anywhere and one of the largest Mezcal selections in the world. And then there are the fried grasshoppers. This is the best Oaxacan restaurant in the country.
Further east, in San Gabriel, chef Roberto Berrelleza uses his homespun Sinaloa recipes to put Babita on the map as the best Mexican joint on the east side.
Babita on the east side serves up Mexican food. (Photo: found on Babita-mexicuisine.com)
6. The Masters of Sunday Brunch
This one is almost blasphemous, but we’re going to say it anyway: L.A. does brunch better than New York. Sure, New York has Prune and Buvette and Cafe Cluny, but it’s easy to forget that brunch is supposed to be about sunshine and lazy Sundays, mimosas, ivy-draped walls, and rooftop views of blue skies.
In L.A., the conversation about brunch should begin with Jessica Koslow’s quaint Silver Lake spot Sqirl, a neighborhood spot of warm breads and simple breakfasts. While most chefs turn their talents toward dinner, Koslow focuses on breakfast. She makes her own jam and is a die-hard farm-to-table enthusiast, sourcing only the freshest produce for her jams and dishes.
Over in Brentwood, inside the charming Brentwood Country Mart, is Farmshop, one part artisan market, one part celeb-frequented brunch haven, in the vein of a chic farmhouse. With a strong selection of fresh egg dishes and heavy french toast plates, the food is made in house (even the ketchup is made by hand) and always delicious.
The market at Farmstand has a huge selection of farm produce. (Photo: found on Farmshopca.com)
And then there’s Eveleigh in West Hollywood, a near perfect restaurant we first fell in love with over dinner, until we realized they’re even better at brunch. Grab a seat near the back overlooking verdant shrubbery and order the Bubble and Squeak, a classic English breakfast.
7. Koreatown/Thai Town
Yes, New York has Chinatown, and lost somewhere in Queens is an authentic Korean enclave that never gets its due. But L.A.’s Korean pride runs deep, and its own enclave is the city’s hottest new neighborhood with more than a dozen of the most authentic restaurants anywhere in the states for Korean eats.
Park’s BBQ is probably the most expensive Korean barbecue in town, and that’s because the chefs at this authentic Koreatown stripmall haunt source their meat with a careful eye, serving only the best Kobe beef, plus legg pancakes and kimchi that have kept it atop the Korean empire for years.
Head west into the heart of Hollywood for the Sapp Coffee Shop, a small, even ugly little space that serves the city’s best boat noodles. The staff largely speaks Thai and the room is something you’re likely to find in the heart of Bangkok.
8. California Produce
You can’t argue this one. California has the best produce, and the farm-to-table sensibilities of L.A. chefs make each dish fresh, simple, and delicious. We chatted with Koslow, the renowned chef and owner of Sqirl and former Greenpoint resident, who believes the produce is the defining factor that separates L.A. from New York.
“The produce you get here is nothing you can get on the East Coast,” she says.
“We gave access to all the heirloom produce that doesn’t travel well, the lemon apricots and youngberries. The good chefs at the farmer’s markets can get the best produce in the world without worrying about a middleman.”
To see fresh produce in action, head to Silver Lake’s Forage, where they list the farms and markets they work with to produce the freshest sandwiches in the city.
Kenny Porpora has been a writer for The New York Times, New York Daily News, Newsday, and has been an editor for The Huffington Post. He joined Man About World as an editor in 2012.