Diners pack the outdoor patio at Cassia.
Diners pack the outdoor patio at Cassia.
At Parks BBQ in Koreatown, customers dine on rice noodle soup and other traditional Korean specialties.
At Parks BBQ in Koreatown, customers dine on rice noodle soup and other traditional Korean specialties.

Los Angeles - To get a sense of the Los Angeles food scene, hit the streets and order a taco, probably the most iconic dish in the city: widely available, typically affordable and receptive to interpretation.

As with po' boys in New Orleans, “everyone eats tacos” in the City of Angels, says Bill Esparza, a blogger for Street Gourmet LA. There are hundreds of sources of tortillas and toppings, but Esparza and other insiders never fail to sing the praises of Guerrilla Tacos, introduced three years ago as a two-person food cart and now prowling the Southland in a blue mobile taqueria.

The muse behind the menu is Wes Avila, a chef with a background in fine dining; the ingredients reflect a sense of what's local and luscious, if sometimes unexpected. On a recent fall afternoon, Guerrilla customers in the Arts District had the option of a tostada composed not just with big-eye tuna and fresh sea urchin, but also with furikake (Japan's answer to salt and pepper) and colourful bull's blood microgreens.

“Sorry, no more uni,” latecomers to the window were told - a full hour before lunch ended. What could have been a rare low moment during a week-long sweep of Los Angeles, my eighth stop on a mission to identify the country's 10 best food cities, was rescued by a choice consolation: a taco dressed with sweet potatoes, feta cheese, scallions and fried corn. (Ole, by the way.)

I didn't know it at the time, but nearly 30 meals later I realised that the snack represented a lot about what makes the second-largest city in the nation a top-tier place to eat: sun-kissed ingredients, chefs' willingness to buck convention and an audience open to eating just about anything, just about anywhere.

 

Breadth, depth and geography

Ask the pros what makes Los Angeles so delicious, and “diversity” tops everyone's list. The rainbow coalition that makes up this city of 4 million people, nearly 50 percent of them of Hispanic origin and 15 percent of Asian ancestry, results in pupusas as you'd find them in El Salvador, rice as you'd taste it in Iran and pho as ladled out in Vietnam.

“The sheer variety is unmatched anywhere else in the country,” says Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Los Angeles Times. (He jokes that his focus has changed from his tenure reviewing restaurants for the late Gourmet magazine, where “I thought about food as answers for the rich.” In Los Angeles, the emphasis is on “hangover food.”)

Large groups of people who appreciate the food of their heritage demand restaurants that “don't have to simplify for anyone,” agrees Patric Kuh, the veteran restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine and a onetime restaurant cook. “Koreans aren't trying to appeal to non-Koreans.”

At the same time, no one calls anyone on tradition. “We're open to mash-ups,” says chef Suzanne Goin, the force behind the small-plates-driven A.O.C. and the modern-Californian spot Lucques. The poster child for food trucks in the city is Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ acclaim, whose tacos and burritos bridge Mexico and Korea with short ribs and house-made kimchi in their fillings. “We don't have to carry the torch of California cuisine the way Berkeley does,” says Kuh.

Some of the area's most intriguing dining occurs in the most unlikely places. Downtown's newish RiceBar is basically a lunch counter that happens to serve Filipino food by a former chef at the upscale Patina. The modern-American Redbird is carved from what used to be a rectory.

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 L.A.” 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 Oyster 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 sitting 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 L.A. for Central American and Mexican, Glendale for Armenian and Middle Eastern, Koreatown in Central L.A. 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 L.A.” 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 neighbourhood 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 specialise 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 favour? 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 favourite 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 L.A.'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.”

 

Dining without pretense

If L.A. is missing one thing in its mouthwatering offerings, it's the experience of fine dining, rare as a necktie. In her three years as restaurant critic for LA Weekly, Rodell has yet to award an establishment her highest rating, five stars. One of the few restaurants that she and her peers point to as an exemplar, Providence, headed by chef Michael Cimarusti, is capable of beautiful food. But I found the service so unwelcoming - I was ignored at the door and dismissed by a sullen bartender - that I left mid-prawn for a competitor, Spago (where, I'm pleased to report, the reception is superior and the smoked salmon pizza is as good as ever).

Los Angeles has nothing on par with, say, the luxurious Quince in San Francisco or the polished Le Bernardin in New York. On the other hand, Los Angeles plays host to some of the finest Japanese restaurants in the country, where moneyed chowhounds can drop hundreds of dollars a head for prime fish and other delicacies. Some of the best sushi around, at Asanebo in Studio City, occurs in an ordinary shopping strip.

In better restaurants here, the glory is rarely found in the finery - linens and stemware - but rather in the ingredients, and the expectation that a kitchen will do them justice. Perhaps the hottest ticket in town right now is Maude in Beverly Hills, a 25-seat dining room with food by celebrity chef Curtis Stone: nine courses, each starring the same seasonal treasure. October put apples on display. November will highlight white truffles - and a price tag of $375 (about R4 000) a head.

“Fine dining is very much alive; it's just redefined” in Los Angeles, says restaurant mogul Bill Chait, whose collection includes Bestia (Italian) and République (Californian). Part of the shift is explained by a new generation of worldly diners. “The rack-of-lamb market has become the lamb-neck market,” says Chait. Southern California's informality is another factor: “The interest in pretense has never been lower.” Order the $175 tasting menu at République, and the food is deposited in the centre of the table - you know, for sharing.

The more-relaxed approach to contemporary dining can be traced to 1982, the year Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck, a veteran of the French-accented Ma Maison, broke free of tradition when he opened Spago, one of the first upscale restaurants in the country to expose its kitchen to diners and offer designer pizza on its menu. Reached on his cellphone while he was shopping at a farmers market this month, Puck ticked off his reasons for mixing things up: In the event he couldn't afford a manager, “I wanted to see the customers and I wanted them to see the cooks,” who, he reasoned, wouldn't scream at one another if they knew they were on display. A year later, Puck blazed more trails when he introduced Chinois in Santa Monica, a pan-Asian restaurant that incorporated American ingredients and Chinese techniques. Although he wasn't trained in Asian cooking, and had only been to Hong Kong once, Puck says, “I knew how I felt about it.

 

Shopping with the stars

The casual approach Angelenos take to dining out extends to dining in, starting with grocery shopping at standard-bearers including Gelson's, Trader Joe's and the health-minded Lassens, name brands that are kept on their toes by immigrant chains 99 Ranch Market (Chinese), Jons International Marketplace (Middle Eastern) and Mitsuwa Marketplace (Japanese). No city claims better, or more varied, sources for food, much of it available year-round. San Francisco comes close, but as Russ Parsons, food columnist for the Los Angeles Times, points out, Bay Area shoppers give off “an attitude of self-congratulation” regarding their markets. Angelenos, in contrast, see as normal a tomato season that runs into November and the possibility of a dozen kinds of tangerines. Great arugula - snappy of stalk and peppery in taste - is part of the everyday. Romanesco is as ubiquitous as ramen.

“To Live and Dine in L.A.” reminds us that access to stellar ingredients is nothing new to Southern California. At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Los Angeles was symbolised by an elephant fabricated with 850 pounds of walnuts, wearing a belt of lemons and bearing a basket brimming with corn, wheat and barley.

Even now, when it comes to farmers markets, Los Angeles has few peers. Among the crown jewels is the Hollywood Farmers Market, the flagship in a group of eight markets run by Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA). Poised to celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, the Hollywood market brings together up to 90 certified farmers and 170 vendors every Sunday.

Along with fresh oysters, artisanal ice cream and vegan mole, a stroll uncovers papalo (similar to cilantro), moringa leaves (from the “horseradish” trees native to India) and sugar cane (the tropical grass), a reflection of the diversity of the community that shops the market, says James Haydu, SEE-LA's executive director.

And the featured attractions aren't limited to stalls and carts. “Unlike in Toledo,” Haydu teases, “you'll be buying apples next to Reese Witherspoon.”

Interactive map: http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/style/2015/10/27/the-search-for-americas-best-food-cities-los-angeles/

 

Tom Sietsema

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

 

Los Angeles: Where to go

Restaurants

Animal

435 N. Fairfax Ave., 323-782-9225

animalrestaurant.com

Once daring, the spare, organ-oriented Animal now feels like a hit show in its fifth season, with more competition, which shouldn't stop you from checking out the hamachi tostada garnished with peanuts and avocado or from finishing the uber-rich biscuit topped with melting foie gras.

 

A.O.C.

8700 W. Third St., 310-859-9859

www.aocwinebar.com

There are few greater pleasures in the city than a table on the patio of Suzanne Goin's small-plates restaurant in Beverly Grove, surrounded by climbing bougainvillea and serenaded by a fountain. Head for anything originating from the garden or the restaurant's wood-fired oven. The most reviving mocktail around: the Green Goddess, with green tea, cucumber, arugula, lime juice and jalapeno. (See accompanying recipe.)

 

Bestia

2121 E. Seventh Pl., 213-514-5724

bestiala.com

Ignore the clamor and the challenge of securing a table at prime time. Bestia is one of downtown's top draws because the warehouse setting is amazing (the chandeliers are wrought from meat hooks) and the Italian-leaning food, from chef Ori Menashe, is some of the most innovative in the city. Home in on veal tartare crostini with tonnato sauce; farro salad tossed with cauliflower, pickled chili, mint and avocado; and slow-roasted lamb neck enlivened with salsa verde.

 

Cassia

1314 Seventh St., Santa Monica; 310-393-6699

www.cassiala.com

An enticing addition to the scene from Bryant Ng, whose credits include Pizzeria Mozza, this massive Vietnamese-French brasserie combines a bar, a seafood counter, a meat locker, a patio and a menu as big as all that sounds. One of several cross-cultural delights: naanlike pizza strips presented with a bowl of chopped snails, racy with lemon grass and bright with herbs.

 

Chengdu Taste

828 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; 626-588-2284

(no Web site)

Like it hot? This kitchen delivers, with Sichuan food that numbs the lips but compels a diner to keep returning to, say, a strapping bowl of fire-coloured mapo tofu or fish soup afloat with sliced jalapenos and black peppercorns. Not to be missed: squiggles of “toothpick” lamb spiked with cumin.

 

Crossroads Kitchen

8284 Melrose Ave.; 323-782-9245

www.crossroadskitchen.com

Plant-based fine dining means an interior dressed to the nines with handcrafted chandeliers, wing chairs and an original Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph plus vegan versions of crab cakes (shaped with hearts of palm) and scaloppini marsala that could win over a dedicated carnivore.

 

Din Tai Fung

1108 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; 626- 574-7068

dintaifungusa.com

Lines form early outside this dim sum specialist in the San Gabriel Valley, where the Taiwanese thrills run to vinegar-splashed bean curd and seaweed, ginger-sparked mustard greens, and edible purses (shumai) stuffed with shrimp and pork. A glass-enclosed kitchen off the foyer puts the busy cooks on display.

 

Guelaguetza

3014 W. Olympic Blvd., 213-427-0608

ilovemole.com

There's no more festive place to find yourself on a Sunday afternoon, in the company of a live band and potent mezcal, than this Oaxacan standard-bearer in Harvard Heights. Look to the family-packed tables for ordering suggestions; crowd-pleasers include a tortilla-based “pizza” spread with black bean paste, cactus and avocado; and tender chicken in a moat of pitch-perfect black mole.

 

Guerrilla Tacos

Multiple locations; 818-640-3033

www.guerrillatacos.com

Get to the famous food truck late, and it might be out of fresh uni or big-eye tuna for the day. Make do with a two-ply corn taco heaped with sweet potatoes, feta cheese and fried corn, every bit as considered as you'd expect of the chef, Wes Avila, who studied under Alain Ducasse in Paris.

 

Guisados

1261 W. Sunset Blvd., 213-250-7600

What might be the finest tacos in Los Angeles begin in Echo Park, in an open kitchen where the corn tortillas take shape, and are best enjoyed as a sampler of six ($7) on the rear patio, dressed up with colourful murals and a fountain. The stewy fillings run from pork rinds with chili verde to shredded chicken with nutty mole.

 

Jon & Vinny's

412 N. Fairfax Ave., 323-334-3369

www.jonandvinnys.com

The two chefs who also own the nearby Animal trumpet pastas from scratch and pies that dare you to leave pizza bones behind. The Flower Child pie pretty much sums up California cuisine with its toppings of local crescenza cheese, nasturtium flowers, arugula and sea salt.

 

Musso & Frank Grill

6667 Hollywood Blvd., 323-467-7788

mussoandfrank.com

Time stands still at Musso & Frank Grill, where waiters in retro tuxedo jackets deliver chicken potpies and old-fashioned cocktails, and the best place to land is at the curvy wooden bar near a cook flipping flannel cakes on the grill. The scenery trumps the food, but who cares? You're devouring a Hollywood classic.

 

n/naka

3455 Overland Ave., 310-836-6252

www.n-naka.com

A simple bungalow with wasabi-coloured walls serves as the stage for a rare female Japanese chef, Niki Nakayama, whose epic contemporary kaiseki (multi-course meal) might feature roseate kanpachi arranged with dots of jalapeño jelly and avocado sauce; fried sea bass gilded with uni butter; and spaghettini accessorized with abalone and Burgundy truffles.

 

Night (plus) Market Song

3322 West Sunset Blvd., 323-665-5899

www.nightmarketsong.com

A spinoff of the popular Night (plus) Market in West Hollywood (Song means “two”), this northern-Thai-style canteen in Silver Lake calls to all the senses with its sour catfish salad, hip-hop music and tangerine-coloured walls.

 

Park's BBQ

955 South Vermont Ave., 213-380-1717

parksbbq.com

Ask for the best barbecue in Koreatown, and “Park's” is the inevitable reply. The meats - prime short ribs, Kobe-style beef, pork belly - are first-rate, and so is the service. Be sure to find room for the lush steak tartare, fruity with pear in its mix, and expect to smell of smoke when you exit the industrial-chic dining room, smiling.

 

Petit Trois

718 North Highland Ave., 323-468-8916

petittrois.com

Can't get into Trois Mec, the white-hot tasting menu concept from star chef Ludovic Lefebvre that requires you to buy tickets online? Take solace in its sibling next door, a slender bistro serving textbook versions of French classics - escargots, omelets, wild sole meuniere - by cooks who perform mere feet in front of you. The Big Mec is fast food at its finest.

 

Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen

1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-393-7050

www.rusticcanyonwinebar.com

Jeremy Fox made a name for himself cooking vegetarian food. Rustic Canyon finds the chef doing luscious things with liver sauce, an accent for pork, and bone marrow, graced with seaweed pistou. If you get only one dish at this warm-hearted salute to the farmers market, make it the vivid pozole verde with clams. (See accompanying recipe.)

 

Spago

176 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills310-385-0880

www.wolfgangpuck.com/restaurants/fine-dining/3635

Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck's trailblazing restaurant shows no sign of aging, as evinced by the stars that still alight for dinner and a smoked salmon pizza that continues to dazzle, decades after it ushered in a national trend.

 

Sqirl

720 N. Virgil Ave. #4, 323-284-8147

sqirlla.com

Begun four years ago as a preserves maker in East Hollywood, this tiny place went on to serve breakfast and lunch, with a focus on what the owner calls “California comfort food”: avocado toast, crispy rice salad with lemon grass and mint, and a romesco sandwich slathered with house-made ricotta.

 

Bars

Dirty Laundry

1725 N. Hudson Ave., 323-462-6531

dirtylaundrybarla.com

Named for the Prohibition-era trick of hiding booze in laundry baskets, this dim riff on a speak-easy, tucked away under a Hollywood apartment building, pours cocktails such as the whiskey-based, absinthe-rinsed High Desert with orange bitters. Among the house rules: No “talk boxes” (cellphones).

 

Tower Bar

8358 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; 323-654-7100

www.sunsettowerhotel.com

Ensconced in the Art Deco Sunset Tower Hotel and outfitted with walnut-paneled walls and rosy lighting, Tower Bar might be the most luxe lounge in the city. Enjoy a Tower Smash - tequila, basil, lemon and ginger - therein, or on the adjoining terrace, featuring a pool and stunning views of L.A.

 

Stores

Bar Keeper

3910 W. Sunset Blvd., 323-669-1675

www.barkeepersilverlake.com

A one-stop shop for the cocktail geek in Silver Lake, Bar Keeper stocks seemingly everything you need to mix, stir and serve drinks, from elegant absinthe spoons and shakers shaped like rockets to stemware, coasters and top-shelf spirits.

 

Book Soup

8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; 310-659-3110

www.booksoup.com

Among the more than 16,000 titles in this West Hollywood literary destination - heavy on books devoted to fashion, photography, TV and memoirs - are page-turners by California chefs.

 

Wally's Wine Shop

2107 Westwood Blvd., 310-475-0606

www.wallywine.com

Trophy wines abound at one of the state's premiere retailers, the flagship of which sits in West Los Angeles. Among the treasures: a 1902 Armagnac, yours for $4,000. Wally's neighbor is also a sibling, the Cheese Box, a source for charcuterie, crackers and other companions for wine.

 

Markets

Cookbook

1549 Echo Park Ave., 213-250-1900

www.cookbookla.com

Echo Park's dream corner market, Cookbook packs a lot into its tiny quarters: fresh herbs, tamarind drinking vinegar, lamb shanks, pie dough in the cooler and sustainable sandwich wrap on the shelf. All this, plus a well-curated selection of cookbooks.

 

Grand Central Market

317 S. Broadway, 213-624-2378

www.grandcentralmarket.com

Name your favourite cuisine - Japanese, Mexican, seafood - and it's apt to be represented by a stall or a counter in this historic downtown food hall, open since 1917 and the recipient of a major makeover last year. Just need some bananas, a juice, some nuts or a veal chop? They're around, too.

 

Hollywood Farmers Market

Hollywood Boulevard and Ivar Avenue, Hollywood; 323-463-3171

www.seela.org/hollywood-farmers-market

One of the best places to catch chefs outside their restaurants, the Sunday morning attraction near the Hollywood and Vine Metro stop will make you fall in love with Southern California. The vendors include oyster shuckers, makers of vegan mole and raspberry-rose sorbet, and growers of world-class produce. Looking for chrysanthemum leaves? Hollywood has them, plus live music.

 

Urban Radish

661 Imperial St., 213-892-1570

www.urban-radish.com

A mindful market with a mission to source locally, Urban Radish refers to itself as a “21st century Mom and Pop community food store.” From the in-house butcher come free-range chicken and pasture-raised lamb, while the wine department focuses on small producers and biodynamic wines. Jazz Wednesday finds a grill party outside.

Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post