Perhaps the truest glory of dining in Los Angeles is that a street-side taco can equal a white-tablecloth tasting menu in complexity and pleasure. Sometimes you just need a cheap eat — here are our picks from our annual 101 Best Restaurants guide.Less
Overstuffed burritos, with their nap-inducing surge of big flavors and lulling textures, have obvious pleasures. But equal beauty lies in the compact burritos you can easily wrap the fingers of one hand around. At each of the four Southern California locations, handmade tortillas crisp on the griddle; with one of a half-dozen options for fillings, including deshebrada (shredded beef in bright, tangy green chile) or duskier chicken tinga with potato.
On Friday and Saturday nights in El Sereno, and on Sunday mornings at Smorgasburg at Row DTLA, Alex Garcia and Elvia Huerta arrive in their onyx-colored van and set up tents from which to serve their rowdily themed “hell menu.” The centerpiece of the operation is three trompos stacked with pork, beef or octopus, each rubbed with “black pastor,” their rendering of an inky paste of charred chiles called recado negro.
Among the abundance of Vietnamese glories in the San Gabriel Valley — the many options for pho, banh mi, crepes, rolls and broken rice plates — I’ve been fixated on bánh ít kẹp bánh ram (also seen on menus as bánh ít ram or bánh ram ít). It’s a two-part dumpling of glutinous rice dough filled with shrimp and pork and then set on a disc of lacy fried dough. It crackles, it squishes, it bursts; it’s awesome.
Manakeesh (or man’oushé, in its singular form) is one of the world’s great flatbread traditions — discs of thin, speckled dough cranked out by corner bakeries for breakfast all over Lebanon. Mo Alam, a native of Tripoli, the second-largest city in Lebanon, has been serving Southern California’s finest manakeesh to Anaheim’s Little Arabia community for 20 years. Buy some fatayer (triangular pastries filled with lemony spinach) and ma’amoul (crumbly cookies filled with dates or nuts) for later.
In 2020, Santos Uy converted his edge-of-Hollywood Hills bistro Papilles to a smash-burger joint. He built a timeless model that purrs from fine-tuning: flattened, crisped patties on a Martin’s potato roll with American cheese and Thousand Island-ish sauce melting into oneness. Griddled onions dangle off the side like commas, reminding you to pause between bites. There is the option of a patty melt, and skinny fries or Brussels sprouts as sides, but the smash burger is the thing.
When Kim Prince opened her restaurant at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall in December 2019, she brought a taste of Nashville-style hot chicken’s true lineage to Los Angeles. Her aunt is André Prince Jeffries, owner of Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville; their family began selling hot chicken to Music City customers in the 1940s. Come to Hotville to understand why this torturous pleasure became a national phenomenon.
Vivian Ku’s two restaurants, Pine & Crane in Silver Lake and Joy in Highland Park, have become neighborhood fixtures through their fast-casual airiness and the lightness of the Taiwanese dishes they serve. The subtle flavors and emphasis on vegetables have never been a play at oversimplifying the cuisine. Joy’s menu is ingeniously concise: a few soups and bowls of noodles, a couple of other wonderful rice dishes, half a dozen riffs on sandwiches.
Their riffs on kakigori, the Japanese style of shaved ice that’s having a moment across America, lean into seasonal produce and charming themes; spiced kabocha syrup, chocolate and candy corn graced a Halloween-inspired version. We should collectively lobby to make the pork katsu sando variation with shiso and stretchy mozzarella a menu mainstay. Meanwhile, there is always the honey walnut shrimp sando, a marvel of design that’s often creamy and crisp in the same bite.
In September 2020, Jonathan Perez settled his roving taquería into an open-ended breakfast and lunch residency at Milpa Grille in Boyle Heights. His inventive tacos tend to follow a winning outline: complex, saucy and blasted with acid. One example: A plank of pork belly, its crisped edges tingling with red chile and vinegar, flops over its tortilla. Refried black beans billow around the pork in churning clouds; avocado salsa and grilled cactus lighten the landscape.
Any conversation about the dining culture in Long Beach’s Cambodian community (the largest in America) begins with Phnom Penh Noodle Shack, run by the second generation of the Tan family, which opened the restaurant in 1985. Wade in with the multitextured house special (it includes several cuts of pork and shrimp), given even more nuance with the optional mixed noodles. Be lavish when adding garnishes of fried garlic and scallions and squeezes of lime.