weekender in LA: good as gold

jgold

If you’ve ever read food writing in or about any city other than Los Angeles, then you’ve probably never truly experienced how transcendent and indispensable the Counter Intelligence column was to food and culture…and to life in Los Angeles.  Its author was a king in the food world, imparting a Midas touch on any eatery he liked, no exaggeration, as his name was appropriately, Jonathan Gold.

(That was my piss poor attempt to write second person as he did so well).

As a lifelong Southern Californian, hearing about Mr. Gold’s sudden passing was heartbreaking.  You can’t really know how pervasive and revered his opinion was unless you lived and breathed and ate what he ate.  He ate, and ate…real food.

He believed that it was the stick to your soul, sizzling off the wok, fatty soup belly that creates the indelible memories and experiences of a grand food life lived.  And of course, he was right!  Jonathan Gold was the one who would gently steer you in this direction, showing you the light, making things that seemed inaccessible or scary become familiar and expected.

Mr. Gold brought to the masses what all children of immigrants in SoCal have known for years…that the best meals happen in somewhat shabby strip malls, in the sticky dining rooms of mom and pop shops — often times with no white linen table cloths in sight.  Although he wasn’t that discerning, there was a time and place for those experiences, too.  He taught us that all types of cuisine, and on a larger scale, all types of people could and should be celebrated.

He was a champion of the unadorned, the unpretentious, whilst peppering his reviews with esoteric references that elevated the intelligence of his reader.  Only a true master of his craft could achieve such a feat.  And he was recognized for it, having been the only food critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize for food writing.

He was a legend in a city of stars.  Undoubtedly, one of its most influential characters; after all, it was often his opinion that brought everyone to the table.

I’d started the draft of this post long before Mr. Gold’s untimely passing (just after Anthony Bourdain’s…shitty year for food writers), but was surprised to see the tribute had already taken form — most of these restaurants I’d written about were lauded by him or were noted in his yearly 101 tomes of where to eat in LA.  If you haven’t seen it, watch the documentary City of Gold (photo above from the movie) for an in depth look at the man and the city he loved.  RIP.

The problem with Los Angeles is that there is too much to eat.  I know, horrible problem. You probably are still salivating from the recs in the previous two installments of the LA weekender series, which can be found here and here, but we’re not done yet! We’ll never be done!

There is every type of cuisine served in every setting.  There’s neighborhoods devoted to all sorts of ethnicities and nationalities (K-town, Little Armenia, Thai town, Little Tokyo, Little Ethiopia, Little Bangladesh, SGV).  And while the coolest, trendiest, hippest restaurants are definitely scene, often it’s the hole in the wall ethnic places that are the BEST.   You don’t need me to tell you that, but you should let Jonathan Gold (famed LA Times food critic and champion of the food truck and hole-in-the wall dining experiences) who fills his 101 places to eat list every year with these such establishments do so.

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If you’ve ever heard anything about Thai food in LA, you’ve probably heard about Jitlada.  This institution is one of the best known Southern Thai restaurants in the city, and counts famous fans like the aforementioned Mr. Gold, Ryan Gosling & Eva Mendes, Aziz Ansari, Drew Barrymore, BJ Novak, and the late Anthony Bourdain, as its fans.

It would be remiss to not mention the sadness with which we received the news of Anthony Bourdain’s passing.  There really should not be anyone out there who writes about traveling and food who can deny what this man did for both platforms.  He was a true pioneer in the unflinchingly honest portrayals of the restaurant industry he wrote in his books, and a spirit who inspired so many people to travel to parts unknown.   It wasn’t always pretty, but that was the point.  His journalistic style was authentic and hard hitting and of course, made every experience seem tantalizingly within reach for any amateur adventurer.

If you know anything about him, you know one of his favorite places to visit was Southeast Asia.  He was a friend of Jitlada’s original chef Tui, who passed last year from lung cancer.  Chef Tui was famous for bringing provincial Southern Thai cuisine to the hungry masses in Los Angeles, and his vision has lived on through his sister and children who keep the restaurant running.

This is a typical Asian restaurant…except with hand drawn love letters from famous diners such as Matt Groening.  As the many signs say, their kitchen is small but the food is worth the wait.  They are truth tellers.

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The crispy morning glory (ong choy) salad is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had.  So many flavors and textures, and the nam pla dressing is so citrusy and fragrant, not fishy at all.  Their pad thai is more tamarindy than most, which is the style I prefer, but is not a standout on the menu.

That’s reserved for the spicier-than-hell seafood dishes, the khua kling dry curry or the regular Southern curries.  These were ordered as mild and I was still struggling.  They’re not messing around here.  You’ll need every bit of that Thai iced tea to help kill the heat.

I find that to make any LA trip count, you have to have a purpose.  Like, are you going antiquing? Or are you looking for the trendiest clothes out right now?  Are you headed to the beach?  This shapes what neighborhood you’re going to be visiting.

For furniture and antiques, head to the Valley or K-town.  You want to spend more than most people’s mortgages on a pair of shoes?  Head to Beverly Hills.  If you’re looking to spend the afternoon chasing fly duds (this is how you can tell old I am, by the slang I’m using), head to West Hollywood and get in line with all the others at the Supreme store.  Once there, post up, because you ain’t going to be getting anywhere else in this traffic, so plan on staying awhile.

If you’re in WeHo, or anywhere near Fairfax, really, make sure to visit one of Jon Shook or Vinny Dotolo’s establishments.  These two kings of the LA kitchen are responsible for bringing us Animal, Jon &Vinny’s, Son of a Gun, Trois Mec, and Petit Trois (Ludo’s places).  Perhaps my favorite slice of pizza in the whole city of Los Angeles is at Jon & Vinny’s, and not just because it’s called the LA Woman.

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A nippy bite of burrata on top of a thin, chewy, tomato-sauce charred crust makes her a real spicy broad.  She’s the ultimate LA woman, for whom you will inevitably fall.  And don’t forget their creamy, famed soft-serve.  What’s cooler than being ice cold?  Eating a meal at Jon & Vinny’s, that’s what.

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Activities are just filler in between meals anyway, but if you’re looking for a destination to be both an activity and provide you sustenance, head to Little Tokyo.  This should continue your abbreviated tour of Asia (Chinese best in San Gabriel, for Vietnamese better head down to Orange County), and wandering around the plaza will expose you to lots of waving happy cats, Hello Kitty & friends, Mikawaya mochi (Trader Joe’s gets theirs from them), okonomiyaki, red bean paste pastries, and of course, a veritable plethora of ramen shops.

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Ask anyone and they’ll have an opinion about which ramen is the best, but if we’re judging by lines, then you’ve got to go with Daikokuya.  They serve a slurp til the last drop bowl of tonkotsu ramen, the Daikoku, that is the ramen bowl of my dreams…and I’m usually a tan tan men/miso person.  It’s just so porky…it refuses to be denied.

Their tamago is the most consistently perfect of any ramen shop, the chasu so tender.  Chrissy Teigen likes her ramen broth milky and porky, and this fits the bill x 1000.  Listen to Chrissy, she knows.

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let’s be frank…gehry at the walt disney hall

Little Tokyo is the perfect spot to hit up after a game at Staples, an aural outing at the Walt Disney, a visual overload at the Broad or just after a long day wandering through downtown.

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Speaking of Downtown, I’ve always found it a strange destination, from the guise of an insider.  LA’s Downtown isn’t the nicest in the country, and it seems a little random as a place to walk around, but I guess it does make for a perfect opportunity to study the cross sections of culture in the city.  From the tent cities of skid row, to the purposeful business types, the trust fund hipsters and unassuming tourists troping about, you will see everything here.

And don’t sleep on its culinary offerings either.

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Over the years, the Grand Central Market had become a shoddy, run down farmer’s market and butchery that reflected the changing environment of its neighborhood.  As with all things LA, the past few years has brought a renaissance, a gentrification that has turned the once sketchy to trendy.  Now you have purveyors like Valerie confections, Eggslut and Sari Sari Store drawing in a much needed tourist revitalization.

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And just around the corner is the well-read Last Bookstore.  This is the perfect cross section of bookishness and instagram sensibilities.  You’ve seen the arching stacks of books morphed into keyholes on any LAist’s feed.  Take a picture for sure, it’s architecturally delightful, but buy a book and support your local book vendor, too.

Pershing Square is the center of the action in Downtown, and if you’re in the mood, peruse the diamond and gold shops of the jewelry district.  Haggle with the Armenians and Koreans if you like, it’s a part of the whole LA experience. Or take a ride on Angel’s Flight, recently renovated and reopened.  Funicular fun in downtown, what more can you ask for?

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A few blocks from Pershing Square is a restaurant so bright and neat that you’ll think you accidentally found your way to a nicer part of Los Angeles.  By the stacked rows and rows of pastel-hued delights you’ll know that you’ve reached Bottega Louie.

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Now, I’ve had a few (dozen) or so macarons in my life, and I stand by the fact that macarons from flagship Laduree in Paris are the absolute best, these are pretty close second.  The French cafe’s seating area beats that of the Champs Elysees mainstay though, it’s expansive, airy, clean and contemporary, while still maintaining the elegant too-cool-for-school Parisian vibe.  It’s Paris x LA, pour sur.

I guess I should tell you to save your appetite, but maybe you should just walk around a bunch instead.  That way you can eat again.

And eat again you will at what is hailed as one of the best restaurants in LA.  Tucked away in an industrial part of downtown is a very unassuming corner of heaven, Bestia.  It does not look like much from the outside, but like a geode, this place rocks.

It takes months to get a reservation, but if your plans or time is flexible, just hit it up early or check frequently for cancelled reservations.  You’ll get in with a little bit of perseverance and patience.  You will be rewarded with homestyle, good Italian food.

Even though it has a sheen of fancy, when it comes down to it, the food at Bestia is best at being simple and stick to your gut great.  The gem salad uses the freshest ingredients possible — I know I have never had a more buttery walnut than what I had there, and I am convinced I may never have that again.

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The Alla Nduja pizza is a revelation.  I know I said that Jon & Vinny’s was probably my favorite, but this one might be, too.  The sausage is spicy and oily and good, but it’s the sauce with its fennel pollen and whatever other crack is mixed in that makes it so savory.

Honestly, the only disappointment here is that there isn’t more of their pasta, like the cavatelli alla norcina.  Like, I could eat another serving of it. Or maybe another two.

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If expensive Italian isn’t your thing, visit Ori Menache & Genevieve Gergis’s newer Middle Eastern spot (Ori is Israeli), Bavel.  Perhaps no one knows how to get to your heart through your stomach more than these two (or the others I’ve written about).

After a meal like this, you’re ready to take in all that LA nightlife has to offer.  Hit up the Strip, go gallery perusing, or club to your heart’s delight.

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“all meat” hot dogs

And when you’re done or tired, know that your food adventures are just reaching their crest.  Because there is a city that wakes up after most people go to sleep, and that is the city of food trucks and street vendors.  Yeah, you can get a danger dog, a true Los Angeles staple, but if you want to have a single bite of true LA culture, an amuse bouche of LA if you will, seek out the Kogi truck.

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blackjack quesadilla…hit me

Lucky for you, the craziness around this food truck has died down from its original iteration (having several trucks helps disperse the crowds some) because now there’s only a moderate wait until you bite into a piping hot, cheesy, kimchi and short-rib filled quesadilla, the Blackjack.  Or inhale a Galbi calamari influenced taco.  Whereas historically Koreans and Mexicans haven’t always had the smoothest relationships in their city, this food makes you believe that world peace is a possibility.

This truck is the brainchild of Roy Choi, as LA a chef as you can imagine.  Cool AF with his sleeve of tattoos and his backwards ball cap, he has the swagger of someone who knows how to mix multiple cultures seamlessly…because he does and he’s done it time and time again.  He created a new school of cooking that is undeniably Los Angeleno.

Before you find yourself in the hell pit that is LAX, make sure you stop by the iconic Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood (always up to no good) for breakfast before you leave.  Chances are you’ve seen this donut shop in many of its movie and TV cameos, including being demolished in Iron Man.  How dare they.

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This institution has been open since the 1950s and has one of the fluffiest, lightest glazed donuts ever.  Goes to show that you don’t need fancy ganaches, hybridizations or savory toppings to make a perfect morning pastry.  This is a metaphor for Los Angeles.

At its core, LA doesn’t need to be superfluous to be cool, but sometimes it is, and we’ll take it either way.

***

An addendum for Jonathan Gold.  Just two days ago, I was sitting in a strip mall in Garden Grove, CA.  Where you ask?  It’s okay, I wouldn’t except anyone who doesn’t live in Orange County to know it either.

Garden Grove (along with Westminster), CA happens to be apart of the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam, an area called Little Saigon.  It is strip mall after strip mall of Vietnamese businesses and eateries, but there is one restaurant in particular that consistently serves delicious food and as a result, long lines.  This is Garlic & Chives.  It is a family and personal favorite.

This is an unassuming restaurant, identical to any of the others along this swath of Westminster Blvd, except for one distinguishing factor.  Garlic & Chives made Jonathan Gold’s 101 places to eat in 2015.  In fact, their pomelo salad made his top 10 dishes of the year.  Everyone around here knows it, but now EVERYONE knows it because of him.

This doesn’t really happen to places around these parts.  They don’t usually get recognized by someone so prominent in the culinary world, especially not someone from Los Angeles!  There are not many who would drive past the orange curtain for food, and not for Vietnamese, where there’s plentiful, decent neighborhood offerings in LA and SGV.

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But, because his palate always chartered his path to find the best, he made it to our little corner of the world and chose to shine the spotlight on a place that is as good as any you’ll find anywhere.  As I crunched into my fantastic-as-always Pho Ap Chao, I reveled in the fact that Jonathan Gold was here, and he and I liked the same stuff.  This has happened more than once in my life and in countless others.  I think that’s why he was so revered.

Maybe that’s where his importance lies, he brought real food to real people, making things accessible, introducing the often overlooked and underexposed in the hopes that he could make you a skosh more educated and empathetic and realize that everyone and everything deserves a chance.  That we’re all closer than you think, and that there are commonalities in communities all over, you just have to do a little exploring and keep an open mind.  And maybe we should all take that as a lesson to live our lives a little more like Jonathan Gold.

 

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