Here’s another excerpt from my road-trip food ebook, Marathon Mouth, available at these fine online retailers for $9.99 or less: Amazon, (Amazon Canada), iTunes, Kobo and Chapters/Indigo. Today, we venture into what might seem a motorist’s nightmare. That’s right, L.A.
So why on earth would anyone consider a road trip that ventures into Los Angeles? Here are the easy arguments against: The size, the sprawl, the constant crush of traffic, the crime, the pollution, the police presence, the misery of it all. Can a jaunt through Hollywood or to Disneyland or Universal Studios make up for even an iota of that? Well, let’s just say the arguments against braving L.A., while all true, are somewhat exaggerated and can be minimized to a certain extent.
The crime rate is certainly high, though dropping. Most of the places you’re likely to visit are perfectly safe, especially during daylight hours. The smog is similarly bad, though improving, and at least your exposure is much briefer than residents, who prefer to think about all that heat and sunshine, at least when they can see the sun.
There’s no getting around L.A.’s overwhelming size. The city proper contains nearly four million people, with 14 million more in surrounding satellite cities (Glendale, Anaheim, Long Beach, San Bernardino, etc., etc.) that stretch out, with no discernible boundaries, to the hazy horizon. To get through this mass of humanity, you have to navigate freeways that handle some 12 million vehicles a day, with gridlock a possibility at any time, including on surface streets. And the sprawl is such that it’s hard to get from one worthwhile dining place to another without driving, often some distance.
The reasons for running this gauntlet? Los Angeles is one of the most creative, cosmopolitan cities on the planet. Name a country, put “town” at the end of the word and you’re likely describing an L.A. community or neighbourhood. Let’s see, Chinatown, Koreatown, Filipinotown, Thaitown. Or there’s the “littles”: Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, Little Ethiopia, even Little Bangladesh. I haven’t even mentioned America’s largest Hispanic population, numbering nearly five million in the greater city.
Add all this ethnic diversity to an unmatched concentration of actors, artists and musicians, and you’ve got a lot of creativity going on. Especially when it comes to cuisine. You can taste authentic dishes from every corner of the planet plus mashups when cuisines collide. I don’t know if you can find Armenian-Korean fusion, but no doubt someone’s working on it.
The great news, for road trippers, is many of the city’s best culinary minds are happily toiling in hole-in-the-wall places, producing first-class food at reasonable prices. As one of its proponents notes: “There’s a culture here of chef-driven fast food.” A bonus of seeking out such places is getting to explore interesting, off-the-beaten-track parts of the city.
But before biting into that amazing short-rib taco, you have to first get to your destination in a reasonable amount of time. Which requires a strategy. And if your destination is downtown, that strategy can be boiled down to two words: Sunday morning.
Located in the heart of downtown L.A., Grand Central Market combines a century of colour and history under one roof. If you’ve only got a couple of hours for culinary exploration, it’s a one-stop shop for sampling an amazing diversity of ethnic cuisine at affordable prices. Go on a weekday, and you’ll face traffic jams and steep parking rates. But arrive on Sunday at 8 am, when the market opens, and traffic is minimal and nearby street parking is free.
Just wander down the market’s long, concrete-floored and dimly-lit aisles and pick your preference. If it’s Mexican, try the birria (goat) or cabeza (cow’s head) tacos, if you dare, at Tacos Tumbras a Thomas or the stuffed gordita pockets at Ana Maria. If it’s Jewish, no one makes a better smoked-meat-on-rye sandwich than Wexler’s Deli. There may be no better deal, or experience, than grabbing a stool and hoovering down a big bowl of chow mein at China Cafe.
If you can’t entirely abandon your hipster roots, G&B Coffee offers single-origin coffees from noted roasters. Another fashionable place is Egg Slut, where the signature breakfast dish is a coddled egg poached in a glass jar and served over potato puree.
A couple of blocks away is one of seven Mendocino Farms outlets in the L.A. area. It efficiently serves the luncheon crowd with locally sourced sandwiches, like a pork-belly banh mi with pickled daikon and chili aioli on grilled ciabatta.
Blacktop is a wee coffee bar, in downtown’s funky Arts District. Its lovely little street front patio is a great place to sip an espresso and then saunter over to frequent-visiting food truck Guerilla Tacos. There, acclaimed chef Wes Avila takes tacos to another fusion level, witness awesome daily creations like summer squash and cashews, blue crab and potato, and scrambled eggs and Brussels sprouts.
East of downtown, Boyle Heights is a heavily Latino community. Here, along a clamorous street of Mexican joints, is Guisados, offering a bewildering array of tacos, many featuring braised meats. If you can’t decide, go with the sampler, featuring six mini tacos.
No Mexican food search can skip La Azteca Tortilleria, in nearby East Los Angeles. This family-run institution may produce the best burrito in all of America. It starts with a hand-made, toasted tortilla and hits the money note with a meringue-battered, roasted poblano chile that’s to die for.
Time to check out a few other L.A. ethnic offerings. West of downtown, Koreatown is famous for restaurants featuring barbecued meats, often grilled at the table. For something different and more affordable, head to Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo. After grazing on all the included appetizer bowls, dive into a mammoth bowl of Manilla clam soup loaded with hand-fashioned noodles.
Never tried Armenian? Just drop into Abraham Patamian bakery for some dirt-cheap lahmajune, a pita-like disk smeared in tomatoes and herbs and seared in a big oven. And how about Middle-Eastern chicken? Zankou Chicken is a celebrated L.A. fast-food chain, where the fall-off-the-bone rotisserie chicken comes with creamy hummus, pickled veggies and garlic sauce.
If you’re in the heart of the city, there’s probably no getting around a visit to Hollywood and a drive down touristy Sunset Boulevard. That’s where you’ll find The Griddle Cafe, a boisterous, always-busy place delivering dolled-up, massive pancakes that might put you in a food coma. A less-than-trendy spot on Hollywood Boulevard is tiny Lempira Restaurante, serving up Honduran dishes like conch soup or plantain and beef. On a quiet street in East Hollywood, acclaimed chef Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl is renowned not only for its fruit preserves but also for inventive dishes like a brown-rice breakfast bowl with preserved Meyer lemon, black radish, sheep feta and a poached egg.
Here’s a novel concept for Los Angeles: two fine road-trip eateries so close together you don’t have to hop in your car. Start with a good pot of French-press coffee at Blu Jam Café while you deliberate what creative breakfast to order—brioche French toast rolled in Corn Flakes or risotto cakes supporting two poached eggs. Given sufficient time for digestion, cross the street to Ta-eem Grill, where the sweating, animated cook commands a little front-window grill to produce outstanding, kosher chicken shawarmas.