These are the 101 best restaurants in L.A. - Los Angeles Times
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Illustration by Luke Lucas / For The Times; photography by Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

These are the 101 best restaurants in L.A.

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After nearly two brutal years fighting for its survival, the soul of Los Angeles dining remains resilient.

It can be hard to move past the heartbreaking losses, and questions about the future linger unanswered, but the restaurant terrain is feeling familiar again. Reservations for the hottest openings and the long-running blockbusters require planning a month ahead. Lines for tacos piled with al pastor shaved from the trompo trail down otherwise quiet blocks; the same goes for diners seeking boba and smoked brisket and Korean-style hot dogs.

The equation holds: Southern California’s superior agriculture combined with the city’s miraculous pluralism and creative spirit make the region one of the world’s most exciting places to eat.

With apologies to my editors, I don’t really believe in the idea of “bests” when it comes to the 101 project. Yes, this is a guide to excellence. It also is meant to capture, as much as a finite number can, the overall breadth and spirit of dining in L.A. Some well-established names and places appear (consider it a nudge to patronize them if you love them) and so do some fresh entrants: Look for Ammatoli in Long Beach, Flavors From Afar in Little Ethiopia, Sushi Kaneyoshi in Little Tokyo and the roving Los Dorados among them.

The number of stories to tell about L.A.’s food culture is limitless, and to that end three of my favorite writers contributed essays to extend the narrative. Please read Carolina A. Miranda on the designer whose cart may change the way street vendors sell tamales; Donovan X. Ramsey on the evolution of a tasting-menu series, heavy with history, that was featured on Netflix’s “High on the Hog”; and Esther Tseng illuminating an organization that supports restaurant workers who are part of the city’s varied, and often invisible, Indigenous communities.

Jenn Harris joins me in naming some of our very favorite places for imbibing (alcohol and otherwise), and I also highlight several enduring pop-up operators whose indie moxie matches their delicious cooking.

Whether you’re picking up takeout or settling in at a crowded counter, remember to treat those who feed us in these unprecedented times with kindness and patience. And welcome back to the table.

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A breakfast biscuit served at All Day Baby
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

All Day Baby

Silver Lake Eclectic $$
Lien Ta and Jonathan Whitener reimagined the urban corner diner at a busy intersection of Silver Lake, and they won over the city with breakfast: tall, gutsy biscuit sandwiches; a beast of a burrito gushing jack cheese and burst egg yolks; and a ricotta hotcake as big as a dinner plate, drizzled with smoked maple syrup for savory contrast. The morning indulgences bear up well as takeout — a blessing that helped the pair keep the restaurant alive in its first two unimaginably difficult years in business. Dinner service, it’s important to say, has come into its own. In dishes like crayfish étouffée with the salty punch of lap xuong and escargots over grits with fried shallots, Whitener revives the talent for combining ingredients that made the pair’s Here’s Looking at You (which they plan to reopen in December) a national destination. All Day Baby’s pastry chef, Thessa Diadem, one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs this year, might lead the revival for torched retro desserts with her strawberry baked Alaska.
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Skillet fried chicken with sides of collard greens, glazed carrot, candied yam gratin, rice and beans.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Alta Adams

West Adams American $$
What defines a great neighborhood restaurant in Los Angeles right now? Look to Daniel Patterson’s community beacon along West Adams Boulevard, open since 2018, as one heartening answer. Over the past year the kitchen — overseen by chef and co-owner Keith Corbin, who crafts a style of cooking he calls “California soul” — has leaned into its strengths. The sheer, crackling fried chicken has always been exceptional; it translates seamlessly into a fried chicken sandwich finished with pickles and hot sauce mayo. (The smoked brisket grilled cheese also ranks high among the sandwiches.) It’s hard to imagine a dinner here without the oxtails braised with miso and soy, served with rice to catch all the goodness, with a side of punchy, unfussy collards. Savor them on the back patio, an oasis of trellised vines, knotty wood fencing and strung lights. Swing by Adams Wine Shop for a bottle or two. Sommelier Ruben Morancy, who ran the store and curated the selection to focus on BIPOC and women vintners, died unexpectedly in September. Many of us will miss his easy cheer and profound knowledge.
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A variety of dishes and sides from Ammatoli
(Dylan + Jeni / For The Times)

Ammatoli

Long Beach Middle Eastern $$
A glance at Dima Habibeh’s menu, billed with friendly euphemisms like “Mediterranean” and “Levantine,” checks the boxes for familiar dishes: hummus, falafel, fattoush with its four distinct kinds of crunch, shawarma and kebabs. The cooking at her Long Beach restaurant is roundly superb, but seek out some treasures that specifically emphasize Habibeh’s Palestinian, Syrian and Jordanian heritage. One of them is the unassuming freekeh: The roasted wheat, cooked so the grain snaps softly against the teeth, carries a faint smokiness. A bowl of it paired with rotisserie chicken and a side of yogurt with cucumber is a balm. Gather a group and pre-order a weekend feast of mansaf — lamb shanks simmered in silky goat’s-milk-yogurt sauce, served over layers of bread and rice, that’s often called the national dish of Jordan. I know of no finer version served in a Southern California restaurant.
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Justin Pichetrungsi prepares transparent sea prawns
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Anajak Thai

Sherman Oaks Thai $$
Justin Pichetrungsi, who worked for nearly a decade as an art director at Disney, returned to the hospitality industry two years ago to run the Sherman Oaks restaurant his parents opened in 1981. In its 40th year, it has emerged as one of the most creatively energized restaurants in the Southland. The baseline menu has been winningly edited to about 25 dishes — a handful of curries (zoom in on the custardy haw mok steamed with dry-aged branzino and egg), stir-fries and plates like grilled pork with fiery chile dipping sauce and cooling sticky rice. His Thai fried chicken with frizzled shallots crackles hypnotically.

Then there are Anajak’s Thai Taco Tuesdays. The menu changes weekly and, beyond the namesake dish, he might crank out kampachi tostadas with Hokkaido ikura, spicy drunken noodles and a halloumi salad flickering with mint. He frequently seeks out collaborations; a recent one with Eagle Rock cheese shop Milkfarm witnessed molten raclette being shaved in outrageous globs over the fried chicken. Half the chefs in town show up to eat at these events. And on weekends Pichetrungsi has been creating provocative, reservations-only omakase meals (using the Japanese form to reconsider Thai flavors) set up in the alley behind the restaurant. The man must be exhausted, but he is an inspiration.
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Fish Tacos from Angry Egret Dinette
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Angry Egret Dinette

Chinatown Eclectic $$
Wes Avila is too restless a talent to constrain himself to a set-in-stone menu. When he began Guerrilla Tacos as an Arts District pop-up stand a decade ago, he covered tortillas with daily market finds and his latest creative breakthroughs. After departing from Guerrilla’s bricks-and-mortar location last year, he’s come full circle at his 14-month-old setup in the courtyard of Chinatown’s Mandarin Plaza. It began as a carryout window serving sandwich variations (including fried shrimp po’ boys and banh mi lined with duck breast), and you can still consistently expect a righteous breakfast torta full of fried eggs with bursting yolks.

He’s returned to his brilliant ways with tacos as well; they’re canvases for fried fish slicked with habanero aioli or cochinita pibil blasted with chile arbol or bone marrow or … it’s hard to keep up, and the online carryout menu usually doesn’t list all the day’s dishes. Best to show up and see what’s available. Heads up that he’s branched out into dinner on Fridays and Saturdays, with table service under strings of lights, and the menu (maybe oysters with uni, maybe a wild take on a pupu platter) is even more unpredictable and compelling.
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Market fruit salad from Antico Nuovo
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Antico Nuovo

Larchmont Italian $$$
Last year many of us gorged ourselves on chef-owner Chad Colby’s focaccia pizzas and pints of former chef de cuisine and pastry chef Brad Ray’s intense, improbably smooth ice creams. Colby had moved fast in March 2020 to close his dining room and double down on to-go foods. The shift was a relative success but it was important for him to return to the deft, unfussy Italian cooking that had propelled him to first open the restaurant in 2019. Tacking on “Nuovo” to the original name, he marked his return to delicate, better-than-ever pastas, beautiful salads and a handful of meaty dishes — among them fragrant roast chicken over focaccia, a dish that somehow summarizes the hardships of the recent past and the pleasures to be found in the present. Still, it was hard to shake the success of the pizzas and ice creams: In a nod to their popularity, the restaurant recently announced it would continue selling those two carryout items for an hour each afternoon pre-service.
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Duck confit
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

A.O.C.

West Hollywood Californian $$$
For years I’ve loved the comfortably sprawling 3rd Street location of A.O.C. — where birthdays have been celebrated at a garden table, where the micro-seasonal salads and crackly-skinned roast chicken and rambling wine list never disappoint. I appreciate its reliable pleasures doubly, though, now that Caroline Styne and Suzanne Goin have managed to match the experience with a second A.O.C. in Brentwood, opened this year in the poshly revamped space of their former restaurant Tavern. It’s rare to the point of uncanny that an institution can duplicate its culinary success, not just the cooking style and the systems but its spirit too.

Both menus follow the communal, small-plates ethos that Goin and Styne led the charge to codify in Los Angeles. The bounty is Californian; the oomph in the flavors draws on cuisines from around the continents-spanning Mediterranean Sea. Harissa slashes through the richness of beef cheeks. Za’atar, sumac and preserved-lemon labneh surround lamb chops like a flashing aura. You can trace the calendar months through the desserts: winter apple galette perfumed with the smoke of a wood oven; airy doughnuts with roasted peaches and berries in the summertime.
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Steak tartare from The Arthur J.
(Dylan + Jeni / For The Times)

The Arthur J

Manhattan Beach Steakhouse $$$
Steakhouses tend to flourish as high-end chains, as de facto corporate boardrooms and as slick dens of vice. I favor another model: the steakhouse as swank supper club. The Arthur J delivers Midcentury Modern plushness in Manhattan Beach — tongue-and-groove ceilings, horseshoe-shaped booths and curvy Eames-style chairs, geometrically patterned wooden room dividers — when there’s no time to get away to Palm Springs. Chef and partner David LeFevre updates the chop house blueprint with tweaks that give the classics renewed life. This is the place to delight in shrimp cocktail (fresh and bouncy rather than rubbery) alongside a dirty martini; dry-aged, bone-in Kansas City strip steak; creamed corn sparked with Aleppo pepper; and thick fries cooked in beef fat, with malt vinegar and Dijon aioli. The service is appropriately debonair; that very much includes distinguished L.A. food writer Patric Kuh, who charms the guests these days as the restaurant’s assistant manager.
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A dish served at Badmaash
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Badmaash

Downtown L.A. Indian $$
If chef Pawan Mahendro and sons Arjun and Nakul ever decide to discontinue takeout, I will very much miss eating their chicken tikka poutine at home. The whole delicious mass retains its heat and its appeal: The fries don’t quite wilt, the cheese curds only begin to melt, the chicken tikka comes in two-bite hunks and there’s enough gravy to unite it all. It made for excellent stress eating while watching “Squid Game.” Badmaash, with its locations downtown and on Fairfax Avenue, has never been about uptight notions of authenticity: Some of its Indian dishes are classic renditions, and plenty of others tinker with tradition. The poutine honors the time the family spent living in Toronto. (A winning vegetarian version swaps in chana masala.) Saag paneer, mulchy and subtle and bright, is possibly the best restaurant version in the metro area. The lamb burger — kindled with fresh mint and cilantro, cumin, garlic and other herbs and spices — sits on a tall bun with aioli running down the patty. It’s a signature only available for dine-in, and I respect that.
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Grilled Squid Tostada, back, served at Bar Ama restaurant, in Downtown LA.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Bar Amá

Downtown L.A. Tex-Mex $$
Josef Centeno is a son of San Antonio. At Bar Amá he serves arguably the most joyful and elucidating Tex-Mex cooking west of the Rockies. Fundamental pleasures prevail: tart-sweet margaritas; guacamole with warm chips and nachos during happy hour; tangy, cheesy green chicken enchiladas; and off-the-menu puffy tacos, filled with carne guisado or chicken picadillo, that should be consumed in seconds. Along with his alchemist’s queso — in which unlikely elements of Velveeta and three cheeses, including a Lyonnaise sheep’s milk number, turn to molten gold — these dishes can convince you why this regional cuisine should be a source of national pride.

Also, the menu is rife with vegetables. Salads of tomato and plum, or figs and nectarines sprinkled with feta and salsa seca, signaled the end of summer during a meal in September. Shishito peppers pinged with za’atar and roasted cauliflower flecked with cilantro pesto are mainstays. In the midst of the city’s birria craze, Bar Amá puts forth an herbaceous mushroom variation. Partly these dishes channel aspects of two Centeno restaurants, Amá•cita and Bäco Mercat, that closed during the pandemic. They also express his overall shift toward more plant-based recipes. The evolving Tex-Cal-Mex equation reckons where he came from with finding a fresh way forward. Who among us can’t relate?
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A variety of dishes from Bavel
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Bavel

Downtown L.A. Middle Eastern $$
On June 15, the day that restaurants reopened for indoor dining in Los Angeles, my partner and I happened to be driving by Bavel in the Arts District around dinnertime. Spontaneously I pulled over and raced up to the host stand. Might there be a couple of open seats at the bar? We squeezed into the remaining two spots. Being back in a packed dining room came with a rush of mixed feelings, but what a return. We reacquainted ourselves with Bavel’s greatest triumphs: airy hummus swirling around a well of spicy duck ’nduja; the flaky malawach, neatly sliced, with its sides of dill crème fraîche, egg and ingenious strawberry zhoug; the wondrous lamb neck shawarma you wrap in laffa with tahini and pickles. Bartenders stirred Lillet rosé spritzes scented with orange blossom water. Sommeliers poured wines from the Levant. Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis’ flavors ping from Morocco to Egypt and Turkey to Georgia, and Gergis had slipped a properly Gallic cherry clafoutis into the dessert mix. In many small ways I felt the world opening back up that night.
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Roasted marrow bone with spinach gnocchetti, crispy breadcrumbs and aged balsamic
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Bestia

Downtown L.A. Italian $$$
Loud voices and hip-hop bass lines ricochet off red brick and metal piping. People swarm the host stand, checking in for a hard-won reservation or adding their names to the waitlist for bar seating. Scents of garlic, sharp herbs and fat crisping over flames stoke hunger. More than for any other restaurant in Los Angeles, the revival of Bestia’s raucous scene in a converted warehouse feels like rewinding to the time before the world changed. Returning to Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis’ Arts District flagship, I understand why the crowds have come back like homing pigeons: Bestia’s ball-of-fire Californian-Italian flavors delight as fiercely as ever. They hit you when you gulp scallop crudo, bathed in Meyer lemon cream slicked with rosemary-chile oil, from its shell in one take. The elation continues through yogurt pici (a thick noodle) in lamb ragù; the infamous roasted bone marrow over spinach gnocchetti; and a fearlessly salted and beautifully grilled pork chop perfumed with fennel. Are you considering skipping Gergis’ astonishing fruit desserts? Would you duck out of a World Series game before the bottom of the ninth with the Dodgers ahead?
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Tomatoes and burrata oreganato
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Birdie G’s

Santa Monica American $$$
Jeremy Fox opened Birdie G’s in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station in 2019, in partnership with Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, owners of the Rustic Canyon Family restaurant group; he’d been a chef and partner at the company’s namesake restaurant for six years. His first menus at Birdie G’s — zigging and zagging through twists on Eastern European Jewish foods, Italian-leaning dishes, odes to West Coast seafood and desserts that winked at a 1950s sort of nostalgia — lobbed a whole lot at diners. Much of it was smart and gratifying, but in its rush to convey his culinary autobiography the cooking could sometimes have a scattered, fevered quality to it.

Time, and the sobering work of keeping a new restaurant afloat through a pandemic, have brought Fox and his dream project some hard-won clarity. Birdie G’s has quietly become a community treasure. The side-street location in a former train depot turned out to be the ideal place for an inviting patio lined with young palm trees and other greenery. Some artful editing has kept the menu’s heart intact, though its slimmer size now feels manageable for the kitchen and the customers. Always order the relish tray, with its tour of seasonal vegetables and its slyly complex onion dip. Persian-inspired lamb over a scattering of crisp rice is better than ever. Look for inspired ideas like tomato-burrata oreganata and trust sommelier Chloe Miranda to guide you through the ebullient wine list. If you haven’t been to Birdie G’s since its earliest, buzziest days, it’s time to return.
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Two burritos de birria covered with salsa, green chile pork sauce and cheese
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Burritos La Palma

El Monte Mexican $
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 — bundles filled with stews, or complementary pairs like frijoles and cheese, in which you can taste the quality and care in spicing. The Bañuelos Lugo family are masters of the tightly packaged burrito. They began their business in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1980. At each of their four Southern California locations, handmade tortillas crisp on the griddle; they parcel one of a half-dozen options for fillings, including deshebrada (shredded beef in bright, tangy green chile) or duskier chicken tinga with potato. If you are looking to be satiated to the point of stupor, there is always the platillo especial, two birria-packed burritos in a swirl of green chile and stringy cheese.
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Vietnamese-cajun crab, crawfish and corn dip from Cassia
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Cassia

Santa Monica Vietnamese French $$$
Bryant Ng has synthesized myriad influences into a cuisine that is entirely his own. He unites his Chinese-Singaporean heritage, his wife and business partner Kim Luu-Ng’s Vietnamese background, his Parisian culinary training and his time at places like Pizzeria Mozza, where he was the opening chef. In the pandemic era he’s streamlined Cassia’s menu without gutting its essence: The extravagant, anise-scented pot au feu is gone for now, but the coconut-rich beef rendang, garlicky chopped escargot with lemongrass and bacon, and the crisp-edged seabass with turmeric and dill (an ode to Hanoi’s famous cha ca la vong) remain. A Vietnamese-Cajun-inspired dip of crab and crawfish showered with salted egg crumble was introduced forever ago in early 2020; start a meal there if you haven’t tried it yet. Socially distanced tables have dialed back the once-crushing decibels in the dining room, and the expanded outdoor space is a sea of heat lamps in the cooler months. If Cassia roared onto Santa Monica’s scene in 2015, it’s now quietly settling in as a haven for the community.
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Black pepper prawns from Chifa
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Chifa

Eagle Rock Chinese/Peruvian $$
After a year of gazing into Chifa’s empty dining room like it’s an untouchable museum display, usually while picking up takeout or heading to a tented outdoor table behind the building, the restaurant is finally open for a meal inside. You need to be standing in the space to fully absorb its details. T-back velvet seats in deep emerald; zebra stripes racing over one wall, seafoam-speckled tables with scalloped edges on brass legs: It looks like an ’80s set piece from a futuristic “Dynasty” dream sequence. It’s the work of Humberto Leon, who co-founded the fashion brand Opening Ceremony, and his family.

Food-wise, Chifa pays homage to his mother, Wendy Leon, who returns to the kitchen here, having run her own place in Lima, Peru, four decades ago. The menu is most strongly informed by the deep influence of Chinese immigrants on Peruvian cuisine: sticky spare ribs caramelized in soy sauce and Shaoxing wine, zongzi (steamed sticky rice with meats, vegetables and duck egg yolk bundled in a bamboo leaf, also available in a vegan version), excellent prawns crusted with black peppercorns that pop hot and gritty against your teeth. A sleeper favorite: Popo’s Wellness Soup, a delicious herbal broth that changes with the seasons but whose nutrients you can almost feel rippling through your bloodstream.
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The whole branzino alla piastra at Chi Spacca
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Chi Spacca

Hancock Park Italian $$$
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost nine years since the “Italian meat restaurant” emerged from the catering and cooking-class space on Nancy Silverton’s corner of Melrose and Highland avenues. Chi Spacca still feels like the audacious younger sibling to Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza around the corner. The two Florentine-style steaks, each cooked masterfully to show off the beef’s mineral tang and melting fat, cost more than $200 apiece these days. That said, they easily feed four as part of a full meal and even then there might be leftovers. And though charcuterie, meat pies, lamb chops with minted yogurt and milk-roasted pork loin dominate the menu, the superb vegetable sides flow with the farmers markets and could be meals unto themselves. Also, I will never skip the focaccia di Recco, a crackery flatbread Silverton obsessed over for two years to perfect, which is frankly better than most versions I’ve had at the recipe’s Ligurian origins.
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A bowl of seafood, corn on the cob and lemon
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Connie & Ted’s

West Hollywood Seafood $$
Only at this upside-down moment in the world could Connie & Ted’s curvy, Atomic Age building — an ode to the Googie-esque coffee shops and drive-throughs of midcentury Los Angeles — be upstaged by a new patio enclosure out front. Its swooping, windowed canopy resembles a design-forward plane hangar. As ever, the simplicity of the restaurant’s New England-style seafood stands on its own merits. When I unplug myself from automatically ordering clam bellies or fish and chips, I have recently admired the freshness of the New England clam boil; grilled Rhode Island swordfish with only a lacquer of herbed oil; and the Portuguese fish stew redolent of garlic and paprika from the crucial addition of linguiça.
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The parsnip gratin-stuffed onion from Crossroads Kitchen
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Crossroads Kitchen

Beverly Grove Vegan $$
I stand neutral on the subject of plant-based foods that mimic meat, dairy and eggs. I prefer vegan cooking that centers on vegetables and grains, but I also remember from my own long-ago vegetarian days just how sating approximated beefy textures could be. Crossroads (true to its name) navigates these junctions of veganism with considerable thought. Its signature take on carbonara centers around a wobbling modernist “yolk” fashioned from vegan yellow tomato Béarnaise. It pops and runs, melding with house-made spaghetti or fettuccine into a creamy tangle. Tal Ronnen and Scot Jones are equally adept at turning the season’s harvest into visual stunners. The fall menu, for instance, features rutabaga carved into a swirling vortex, roasted with sherry and maple syrup until its edges are blackened, and set on mustard cream sauce. It pairs nicely with a dry martini while you casually study the patio crowd — surely you’ll spy at least one entertainment industry heavy.
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Potato flautas
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Los Dorados

Mexican $
From a sky-blue trailer painted with overlapping murals and occasionally sporting a disco ball, Steven Orozco Torres serves tacos dorados (a.k.a. flautas) in four variations. Chicken tinga hums with chipotle; lamb barbacoa nestles under a sauce that resembles mole negro and tastes distinctly of beer; chorizo con papa balances spicy, meaty and creamy; and a vegetarian mashed potato dissolves into soft, cumulous textures. No matter which you choose — and you probably should try them all — the effect is the same: The rolled, fried tortilla crackles satisfyingly against the teeth, cuing an endorphin rush. Crema twangs on the palate, and the finishing touch of crumbled cotija whips around like a salty snow flurry. It’s all a masterclass in flauta engineering. Los Dorados lists its locations (mostly Friday through Sunday) on Instagram weekly. Torres, a former bartender, often parks in front of bars and breweries. Needless to say, dorados make for excellent drinking food.
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A plate with oxtail, collard greens, mac and cheese and cornbread
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen

Inglewood American $$
Native and longtime Angelenos occasionally mention to me how much they still miss Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch, a Marina del Rey institution that served fried chicken, cornbread muffins, collards and cinnamon-scented “Sock-it-to-me” cake for nearly 15 years. Adolf and Mary Dulan opened the restaurant in 1985. Adolf was the chef. Born in Oklahoma, he moved to Los Angeles as part of the second wave of African Americans’ Great Migration out of the South. He died in 2017 after a long career in hospitality, but his family carries on his legacy at the two locations of Dulan’s, originally opened by Adolf in 1999. The cooking remains bedrock sustenance for L.A. I frequently enjoy the crackling fried chicken and smothered pork chops, but mostly I order the long-simmered oxtails in gravy with sides of vinegared collards and near-molten mac and cheese.
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The chorizo verde and black pastor tacos from Evil Cooks
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Evil Cooks

El Sereno Mexican $
On Friday and Saturday nights in El Sereno, and on Sunday mornings at Smorgasburg in 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.” In collaborations like the dessert flan taco — in which a tortilla with the delicate texture of a thin johnnycake cradles a citrusy slab of custard — the pair bring unceasing imagination to their mobile taqueria. Their chilaquiles breakfast burrito also makes an excellent dinner. The centerpiece of the operation, though, 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. Garcia and Huerta nicknamed the novel octopus al pastor “Poseidon.” It looks sentient, like something from one of the more demonic scenes on “Lovecraft Country.” But carved into corn tortillas, dressed with pickled onions, red salsa and guacamole and sweetened with a sliver of charred pineapple, the taste is holy.
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A dish with linguine al limone
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Felix

Venice Italian $$$
This past February, when Felix began taking dine-in reservations again, Evan Funke posted the news on Instagram along with a photo of his pasta tools: mattarello (the crucial long, thin rolling pin), scrapers, brushes, pronged cutters and other medieval-looking instruments. They had been spread out on a dark wood table powdered with flour. The image felt declarative, an affirmation of Funke’s still-absolute devotion to his craft. His meticulousness translates to abject pleasure on the plate. By all means, indulge in his renditions of the most beloved regional pastas (ragù Bolognese clinging to satiny pappardelle, rigatoni all’Amatriciana with its whiff of barnyard from guanciale), but don’t miss out on his linguine al limone, fragrant from the sauce’s infusion of lemon leaf. The cocktails, the brainy all-Italian wine list and the Sicilian focaccia called sfincione are as splendid as ever — and a new, rambling outdoor dining space in the back has the right pastoral feel for the Funke aesthetic.
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Banh it kep banh from Five Stars Hue
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

5 Stars Hue

El Monte Vietnamese $
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. Kim Dao and Hong Pham, the married pair behind the Ravenous Couple blog, urged me to try the version at 5 Stars Hue, a small but growing chain of restaurants located throughout the SGV. Sure enough, the bánh ram ít were powerful in their crisp-soft contrasts, and liberal splashes of nuoc mam took the flavors to fresh, pungent extremes.

As the restaurant’s name suggests, its menu focuses on dishes native to Hue, the city in central Vietnam with a long imperial history. Round out the meal with bún bò hue, the spicy beef noodle soup with scarlet broth and ruby blood cakes as soft as tofu, designed to be customized with herbs and lime and tangles of fresh and fried onions.
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 Somali chicken and tice and Kenyan coconut Tilapia
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Flavors From Afar

Little Ethiopia International $$
A unique and rewardingly daunting mission guides Flavors From Afar in Little Ethiopia. Co-founder Christian Davis describes it this way: “We highlight cooks and chefs who are refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants making cuisines from around the world.” Each month features a menu from a different cook who works with in-house chefs, led by program instructor Kenna Copes, to translate the home-cooked dishes of their culture to a professional kitchen setting. Copes and the restaurant staff prepare the meal. The key is to present food that feels true to the showcased chefs but also appeals to restaurant customers, and the translation process can be a delicate dance.

They have the moves to pull it off. In September, for example, Copes and her team eloquently re-created a handful of Lebanese signatures from chef Lina Georges of Mama Lina Cooks, including ouze (cinnamon-scented lamb shanks tumbling over rice scattered with pine nuts and slivered almonds) and siyadiyeh (spice-rubbed fish with tahini sauce). Other menus have featured Guatemalan taquitos, Palestinian musakhan (spiced chicken and caramelized onions over flatbread), Kenyan-style tilapia cooked in coconut milk and an Eritrean recipe for goat marinated in herbs and chiles. The restaurant is an arm of co-founder Meymuna Hussein-Cattan’s Tiyya Foundation, which assists families of refugees, immigrants and displaced indigenous communities. Nearly half of the profits from Flavors From Afar go to Tiyya’s support programs, and diners might gain delicious insight into cuisines that are otherwise rare even in Los Angeles.
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Falafel veggie flat from Forn Al Hara
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Forn Al Hara

Anaheim Lebanese $
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. The version spread with the pine-green, sesame-speckled mix of za’atar and olive is the traditional baseline; diverge from there to nearly three dozen ingredient combinations. A man’oushé with eggs and soujouk (cured, cumin-scented beef sausage) makes for an ample morning meal, as does lahm bi ajeen overlaid with spiced ground beef flavored with pomegranate molasses. Buy some fatayer (triangular pastries filled with lemony spinach) and ma’amoul (crumbly cookies filled with dates or nuts) for later.
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Double cheeseburger with fries
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

For the Win

Hollywood Hills Burgers $
The procession of new burgers in Los Angeles marches onward tirelessly; I keep pace with the latest entrants but find myself lately circling back to For the Win. In summer 2020 Santos Uy made the decision to convert his edge-of-Hollywood-Hills bistro Papilles to a smashburger 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. I ask for a double, sometimes with crackly bacon added, but its presence doesn’t feel crucial. There is the option of a patty melt, and skinny fries or frizzled Brussels sprouts as sides, but the smashburger’s the thing. If you’re really hungry, make it a triple.
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Seafood on ice from Found Oyster
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Found Oyster

East Hollywood Seafood $$
One of my happiest recent weekend afternoons was spent perched at Found Oyster’s bar with a visiting friend. We drank sparkling white and wild, peachy Georgian orange wine. We worked our way slowly through the short menu: a platter of oysters (a couple of them “Moscow” style, beaded with caviar and a little crème fraîche) and prawns; roasted scallops on the half-shell caught in a downpour of butter; a wedge salad pounded with Stilton and crisp, cubed bacon; the compact but potent lobster bisque roll. Time blurred. The restaurant squeezes into a narrow, 26-seat East Hollywood space along a tight block of businesses on Fountain Avenue. Its knotty bar and pale blue crown molding on the shelves behind the bar might suggest a locals’ hangout somewhere in the coastal South. (Chef and co-owner Ari Kolender worked for a while in Charleston, S.C.) But then L.A.’s rose-gold light saturates the room before the sun disappears, and you never forget where you are.
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Tlayuda Gish Bac, a large Oaxacan corn tortilla topped with four different types of meat and grilled cactus
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Gish Bac

Arlington Heights Mexican $$
Dozens of Los Angeles restaurants serve the regional specialties of Oaxaca — Southern California is home to the biggest Oaxacan population outside Mexico. I return again and again to Maria Ramos and David Padilla’s restaurant in Arlington Heights for two cornerstone dishes. The tlayuda Gish Bac is a circle of life layered with pureed black beans, lacy Oaxacan string cheese, grilled steak and chicken, the chile-marinated pork called cecina, slices of tomato, avocado and slivers of rajas arranged like spokes radiating from a wheel’s center. It more than holds its own in debates over the best tlayuda in town. Ramos comes from a family of barbacoa masters and wields her finesse over two distinctly Oaxacan variations: barbacoa enchilada, goat long-simmered with guajillo chiles and served in its ruddy broth, and barbacoa blanco, a less saucy version of steamed lamb permeated with cumin and oregano. Both are wonderful.
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The crispy duck confit, chicory, roasted fig, sherry vinaigrette from Gjelina.
(Trip Davis / Gjelina)

Gjelina

Venice Italian $$
Have you been to Gjelina lately? In the decade I’ve been having meals at Venice’s main culinary attraction, the food has never been better. The format hasn’t changed: a dozen front-and-center vegetable dishes (not including the salads rowdy with herbs), pastas, pizzas, the obligatory pan-seared salmon and butterscotch pot de crème. Everything tastes sharper somehow. The romesco atop gorgeous dragon tongue beans has extra nutty, vinegary depth; the mushroom toast glossed with crème fraîche is richer than ever. Juan Hernandez, the executive chef for the Gjelina Group, is responsible for the boost in excellence. He’s spending more time in the mothership’s kitchen while he waits to reopen Valle, the group’s Oaxacan-inspired restaurant he conceived with fellow chef Pedro Aquino.

Gjelina’s patio has always been magnetic, and never more so than over the last two years. I’d never noticed until this year that a nook along the building’s right side, paneled with rustic mixed woods and just big enough to fit four tables comfortably, is one of the city’s loveliest outdoor dining spaces.
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A slice of key lime pie, left, and a slice of cherry and apple pie, right, from Fat and Flour, inside Grand Central Market
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Grand Central Market

Downtown L.A. Eclectic $$
The name of downtown Los Angeles’ 104-year-old landmark, which has stood now through two global pandemics, feels entirely fitting again. On weekends especially, you’re not so much walking among the vendors and neon signs as being swept along, like the surge through exits at the end of a Lakers game. It can make you high on humanity or trigger a panic attack, but it is one sure sign of the world reopening. As ever, the market stands at the crossroads of what the city has been and what it is becoming. Grab a gordita filled with cabeza from Roast to Go, in operation since 1952, and pair it with crisp-creamy pupusas revueltas from Sarita’s Pupuseria. Prawn Coastal continues on without its founder, Mark Peel, the groundbreaking co-chef behind legendary Campanile, who died suddenly in June.

As to the future, I direct you to the southeast corner of the building and two of GCM’s newest tenants. Shiku, meaning “family” in Korean, comes from Baroo Canteen’s Kwang Uh and Mina Park. Their new project revolves around an ever-changing selection of banchan and to-go meals like fried rice with spicy and citrusy “kimchi’d corn,” fried egg and potato chips. Next door to them is the freshly tiled stand for Fat and Flour, the pie shop (but also cookies!) from superstar baker Nicole Rucker.
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A variety of moles and tlayuda from Guelaguetza
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Guelaguetza

Harvard Heights Mexican $$
A recent lunch at America’s most famous Oaxacan restaurant, founded by Fernando Lopez and now run by his family, made for a reassuring couple of hours. The sense of community had returned to the sprawling, color-splotched dining room; multigenerational families were as deep into conversations as they were into the tlayudas wreathed with strings of oval sausages. The agua del día was tamarindo, taut and puckery. Queso fresco and epazote gushed from crackling quesadillas fritas; the chapulines gently crunched. And Guelagetza’s mole negro was as miraculous as ever — a composite of chiles, nuts, plantains, raisins, herbs and sweet and peppery spices fused into a hauntingly delicious substance. At the end of the meal I walked out into the sunshine, thought for a moment, and went back in to buy some of the first-rate packaged mole negro paste the restaurant now sells.
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Colossal Burger from Hawkins House of Burgers.
(Dylan + Jeni / For The Times)

Hawkins House of Burgers

Watts Burgers $
A land dispute between the California Department of Transportation and Cynthia Hawkins — the youngest of 14 siblings who runs Hawkins House of Burgers, a Watts business operated by five generations of her family — went public in July. The immediate surge of support for Hawkins reminded everyone (officials included) how valued the 82-year-old restaurant is in the community. The burgers at the heart of the civic affection are thick brutes with charred edges. The classic toppings that complete them recall park barbecues on holiday weekends. Some formidable concoctions have become signatures over the years, including the Leaning Tower of Watts: 1 ½ pounds of burger impaled on a skewer with hot links, pastrami and bacon, dressed with egg and chili. I gravitate to the relatively modest Fat Burger, or maybe the Colossal Burger, crowned with a wad of pastrami as thick as a deck of cards.
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Black cod from Hayato
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Hayato

Downtown L.A. Japanese $$$$
Five nights a week, seven customers gather around a cedar counter in a restaurant all but concealed among retail storefronts and offices in the Row DTLA complex. For the next several hours, aided by a few gifted chefs who dash in and out of sight, Brandon Hayato Go will stay in near constant motion to compose a meal of intense beauty. He follows the form of kaiseki, emphasizing different cooking techniques (fried, simmered, grilled and so on) in a specific order, but he also breaks from tradition when it serves his intellect and instincts.

The intimate theater of the meal gives the experience heart. Go always begins the evening quiet and focused, but halfway through 10 to 12 courses — in July it was between the corn and scallop tempura and a sumptuous mound of Dungeness crab in a broth electric with umami — he grows chattier. “Okra is more important to Japanese people than to American people,” he might remark when pairing the vegetable with roasted Santa Barbara prawns. And soon you’re learning that Go was dorm mates with Broken Spanish’s Ray Garcia at UCLA, who was pre-law while Go was studying molecular biology.

By the time you’ve had seconds (or thirds) of the king mackerel with rice and Harry’s Berries strawberries with cream for dessert alongside green tea, the city outside feels very far away. Scoring a reservation for Hayato is an ugly competitive sport; comparisons to finding a golden ticket into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory aren’t far off the mark. The winners score one of the most remarkable experiences in Los Angeles — in America, really. Set your alarm for 10 a.m. on the first of the month and good luck.
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Ribs from Heritage BBQ
(John Troxell / For The Times)

Heritage Barbecue

San Juan Capistrano Barbecue $$
The future of barbecue in California — and probably America — will doubtless look and taste very much like the cross-cultural connectivity that pitmaster Daniel Castillo is forging in San Juan Capistrano. Smoking meats over California white oak in twin 1,000-gallon pits, he takes cues from modern groundbreakers like 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio, weaving Mexican American flavors into dishes and then pushing the ideas even further. Corn-stuffed sausages evoke the flavors of elotes; borracho beans derive depth from dried chiles and jalapeños; and mac and cheese jumps with chorizo, guajillo chiles and queso fresco. At the center of it all, in the way of modern barbecue, is brisket silken from slowly rendered fat, with a ruby, well-defined smoke ring. Savor it plain in lush slices, folded into a taco using tortillas from Burritos La Palma, or layered on banh mi stuffed in a telera roll. Heritage Barbecue became an instant pilgrimage site for barbecue devotees: Expect a line, no matter the time or day.
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Hamachi crudo at Hippo restaurant.
(Andrea D’Agosto / For The Times)

Hippo

Highland Park Italian $$$
Hippo is the kind of place where you have pasta in mind when you make a reservation. Matt Molina is a Nancy Silverton protégé, after all, who won a James Beard Award a decade ago for his cooking at Osteria Mozza. And he delivers, especially with the ravioli variation called triangoli (filled with celery-root purée in a buttered shallot sauce) and the al dente fettuccine presented in a twirled snarl with pork ragù. But once you’re eating at the restaurant, perhaps on its much-expanded patio, your appetite is likely to stray into all sorts of other territories: hamachi crudo surrounded by sliced plum, lime and mint; shaved Brussels sprouts with almonds that amp the nuttiness of Parmigiano-Reggiano; and a fire-kissed pork rib often served with fennel sausage and herbed, half-melted cranberry beans. Hippo pulls the term “California-Mediterranean” into the most likable modern context. End the night sipping on an amaro — maybe a citrusy one from Campania made with arugula.
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Sopa de mariscos from Holbox
(Dylan + Jeni / For The Times)

Holbox

Historic South-Central Mexican $$
The starting point for a meal at Gilberto Cetina Jr.’s sublime mariscos stand has always been the kanpachi and uni tostada. The shattering tortilla, the heat of arbol-guajillo sauce and the cooling squiggles of avocado puree serve to magnify the seafood. Cetina scaled his menu way back during the takeout-only months of the pandemic. Having some of his more substantial dishes return to the rotation — sopa de mariscos bobbing with homemade fish sausage, octopus grilled over almond wood, a frequent special of smoky kanpachi collars — makes the world feel a little more right again. Seating inside Mercado La Paloma also has returned, meaning it’s easier than ever to pair a spread from Holbox with the magnificent cochinita pibil from its sister counter, Chichén Itzá, just down the aisle.
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A variety of dishes from Holy Basil, including long beans with tofu
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Holy Basil

Downtown L.A. Thai $$
Chef Wedchayan “Deau” Arpapornnopparat and beverage ace Tongkamal “Joy” Yuon met nearly 15 years ago while working at Chan Dara. They first joined forces to create a line of natural sweeteners made from fruits and herbs, but their partnership peaks in this downtown takeout window serving beautifully rendered versions of classic Bangkok street foods. Tom yum goong is pure tonic: The herbs in the soup (lemongrass, galangal, a smattering of makrut leaves) waft in a woodsy-limey perfume. It lingers while you relish the snap of shrimp and oyster mushrooms and the pow of roasted chile paste. When ordering, click “yes” to the suggestion of double pork for the pad see ew, which is permeated with basil and the smoky breath of the wok.

Traffic is hell on Holy Basil’s block of Los Angeles Street. A few minutes of illegal parking may be in order. The food merits the risk.
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Fried chicken wings served with mac & cheese, cobbed corn, seasoned fries, and kaleslaw at Hotville Chicken
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Hotville Chicken

Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw American $
Credit is unquestionably due to Johnny Ray Zone and Amanda Zone for stoking L.A.’s Nashville-style hot chicken zeitgeist with Howlin’ Ray’s, and for maintaining their excellence (and popularity) through the dozens of restaurants and pop-ups that followed their lead. When Kim Prince opened her restaurant at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall in December 2019, though, she brought us a taste of the dish’s true lineage. 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. The staff begs first-timers to order mild; with medium and certainly spicy you cross into the territory of tingling, maybe even an all-over prickling sensation, and sweats. You will want more. For hot chicken sandwich seekers, Price makes a slaw-crowned version she calls the Shaw, and on weekends the kitchen sends out buttery waffles to quell the bird’s burn.
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An assortment of dishes, including seaweed-flavored fried fish, Shanghai fried shrimp, smoked fish, cold pork Shanghai style, Shanghai-style rice cake with chicken, pork belly, Shanghai duck and soup with smoked pork.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Jiang Nan Spring

Alhambra Chinese $$
Jiangnan — a region of China defined by the Yangtze River Delta, where cuisines include the cooking of Shanghai and neighboring cities of Hangzhou, Ningbo and Shaoxing — is the geography through which to best map your order at Jiang Nan Spring. The restaurant’s menu comprises nearly 150 items; it can require focused navigation. Kick off the journey with yan du xian, double pork soup in a cloudy, soothing broth also bobbing with bamboo shoots, bok choy and sheets of tofu skin tied in knots.

Dishes like “Shanghai leek rice cake” stir-fried with greens and julienned pork; tilapia fried in a batter striated with seaweed; and dong po rou, the Hangzhou masterpiece of pork belly slowly braised in rice wine, soy sauce, ginger and sugar, usher diners into Jiangnan’s culinary affinity for restrained seasonings and flickers of sweetness. Chef Henry Chang, a native of Taiwan, has cooked the specialties of Shanghai for 30-some years and has more than earned his mastery.
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Green tiger prawns from Jitlada.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Jitlada

East Hollywood Thai $$
I had eaten takeout from Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong’s mainstay a handful of times over the last two years. In late summer, I drove to Jitlada’s longtime home in a Sunset Boulevard strip mall and snagged a table in the dining room right by the entrance. The famous untranslated back page full of radically spicy Southern Thai specialties has been incorporated into its 14-page English menu for a while now. There are no subpar dishes here, but there are superior ones: khua kling phat lung, the turmeric-stained beef curry; a salad of fried morning glories, plated so they look like they’re creeping over the edge of the bowl; and beautiful green-lipped mussels splashing in lemongrass broth. The jungle curry with lamb remains so forceful with the capsicums that the experience borders on supernatural possession. All is right at Jitlada.
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Mozzarella sticks on a plate
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Jon & Vinny’s

Fairfax Italian $$
If you’ve been at least twice to one of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s eponymous restaurants — which are at once meta-commentaries on red-sauce joints and actual feel-good neighborhood restaurants — you can probably name your go-to dishes. I have mine: the herb-flecked mozzarella sticks, which stretch rather than ooze; the chicken Parm, a model of balance; and whatever salad is showing off the season (perhaps white peach, burrata, tomatoes and basil, all covered with a handful of arugula). I’ll never say no to the famous L.A. Woman pizza, but I’ll argue more for the porky Ham & Yeezy smoothed with vodka sauce and smoked mozzarella. It’s an open secret that breakfast (textbook buttermilk pancakes, eggs and bacon-y meats on pies and in glossy pasta carbonara) is as terrific as lunch and dinner … and far easier to book.
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Minced pork on rice, greens and shrimp wonton soup with a side of bean curd and cauliflower
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Joy

Highland Park Taiwanese $
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; those traits specifically channel the cooking style of Ku’s maternal grandmother, Fang Chiu Chen, a constant muse in her approach to food. Both places feature a changing array of cold salads (inky wood ear mushrooms, crunchy-soft braised peanuts) and serve lu rou fan, a classic comfort dish of nubbly, sweetly spiced pork over rice with tea egg and crisp pickled daikon. 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. I love the shallot-spiked chicken rice that’s popular in Chiayi, a city in southwestern Taiwan. Take a couple of bites to appreciate its purity, and then douse it with chile oil. A final notch for Joy: mochi rolled in crushed peanut and black sesame, a dessert that’s a Hakka specialty and a favorite of Ku’s father.
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Bone-in pork chop in a bowl
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Kali

Larchmont Californian $$$
The first dish on Kevin Meehan’s seasonal tasting menu is called “crowded beach,” a tray filled with pebbles and arranged with sea specimens: oysters, uni, maybe limpets in pearly shells or a whelk or a blood clam sitting in its sanguine juices. It establishes the best of the kitchen’s efforts: cooking that stays close to home, that feels special but not too precious. Later the menu dips into dry-aged steak and concludes with one of L.A.’s oddest, greatest desserts: a meringue gelato showered with grated egg yolk cured for two weeks in sugar and salt. It’s nutty and fluffy and nearly weightless. If you prefer a la carte, steer toward the black garlic barley risotto, with its trace of cheddar as subtle as a pheromone, and the always excellent duck breast surrounded by the micro-season’s fruits or vegetables. The cozy back dining room now competes for appeal with the spacious back deck.
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Short rib barbecue with sticky rice
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Kato

Downtown L.A. Taiwanese $$$$
It is exceptionally hard to imagine Jon Yao’s tasting menu restaurant existing anywhere else but Los Angeles. He roams through the flavors of his Taiwanese heritage and Southern California upbringing and arrives somewhere untrodden. Big-eye tuna might star in a remake of Taiwan’s emblematic three-cup chicken; Thai basil, sweetened soy and sesame oil are present but so subtle there’s an impulse to bend closer over the presentation, which resembles a plate of carpaccio, to catch their essence. His interpretive skills, down to the warming signature dessert that channels boba, are quiet but piercing. Yao and his close-knit team built an international reputation over five years in a two-story West L.A. strip mall, their bare-bones dining room all but hidden among restaurants serving tlayudas, pupusas and tonkatsu. In November Kato announced it was moving to the space in Row DTLA previously occupied by Melissa Perello’s wonderful and short-lived M. Georgina. Kato’s 2.0 reboot is scheduled to debut in early 2022. Among the possibilities a new home brings is a liquor license for beverage pairings — a first for the restaurant.
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Seasonal kakigori from Katsu Sando.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Katsu Sando

Chinatown Japanese $
Daniel Son and his partners are aiming to open a second, larger location of Katsu Sando in San Gabriel in 2022. The frequent weekend specials at the Chinatown original, detailed on the takeout shop’s Instagram account, likely foreshadow what the team has in the works. 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. Speaking of studies in texture: Grab an onigiri from the to-go case and, for a buck extra, ask the staff to fry it katsu-style and then dunk it in a side of curry dip.
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Rabbit for two with rice and vegetables from Kismet restaurant.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Kismet

Los Feliz Californian $$$
Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson’s Los Feliz restaurant epitomizes an aesthetic that emerged last decade — one that cherrypicked lighter aspects of Levantine and Western Asian cuisines and grafted them to California’s abundance. It resulted in persuasive dishes like the mosaic “Turkish-ish breakfast” with its marinated vegetables, dates, jammy egg and half a dozen other elements, and pitch-perfect snacks like the phyllo hand pies filled with lemony chicken and pine nuts.

The pies are still around (and great), though breakfast is on hold while Kramer and Hymanson focus on dinner. A quieter spirit has been stirring through the menu: Dishes such as clams in Meyer lemon and fig leaf broth and a lovely black cod arranged around sweet peppers, braised leeks and preserved mandarins join the long-standing lamb meatballs and fried cauliflower with caper yogurt. Pastry chef Meadow Ramsey nails a ricotta cheesecake with tart-sweet passion fruit caramel. Kismet is evolving subtly and meaningfully.
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Apple dessert
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Knife Pleat

Costa Mesa French $$$$
An opulent outfit appropriately housed in the haute couture wing of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza, Knife Pleat continues where chef Tony Esnault and his wife, Yassmin Sarmadi, left off with their now-closed French restaurant Spring in downtown Los Angeles. Esnault was previously the chef at Patina, and he spent years cooking with Alain Ducasse. Which is to say: He performs a rigorous, meticulous form of fine dining that’s nearly extinct in America. Regard his escargot, with its perfectly diced tomato concassé and refined swirls of persillade, and taste its detailed interplays of garlic and herbs and acid, and you’ll understand why this approach to cuisine had a heyday.

In March I had an unforgettable dinner at Knife Pleat celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The kuku sabzi (its closest Western equivalent is a frittata, but it’s in a category of egg dishes all its own) was dense with herbs but nearly as light as mousse; it preceded braised lamb shank over pilaf sweetened with dates and raisins. Sarmadi’s mother oversaw the meal, as she did when the couple hosted the feast at Spring. I can’t help hoping, though, that the glories of Iranian cuisine might occasionally carry over to the regular menu as well? A guy can dream.
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A variety of dishes from Kobee Factory
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Kobee Factory

Van Nuys Syrian $
At the Lebanese and Armenian-Lebanese restaurants in Los Angeles you may have tried fried kibbeh, the football-shaped spheroids of spiced ground beef and bulgur that, when cracked open, reveal a filling riddled with pine nuts. At her Syrian restaurant in Van Nuys, Waha Ghreir serves a barbecued version, patties branded with grill marks that take on a pleasantly bouncy texture. She also makes kibbeh bil saniyeh — a baked version, sharper in its contrasts between soft and crackling, that’s a favorite comfort food of my Lebanese friends. The menu opens a few more windows into Syrian cuisine, a woefully underrepresented cuisine in Southern California: mujadara (bulgur and lentil pilaf scattered with deeply caramelized onions); frankly delicious intestines stuffed with ground beef and rice, presented in a broth scented with allspice, cinnamon and bay leaf; and fava beans creamy with garlicky tahini for breakfast.
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Three dishes from Konbi
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Konbi

Echo Park Japanese $$
I miss slipping solo into one of Konbi’s 10 counter seats, but Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery have smoothly redirected their Echo Park sensation into a takeout enterprise. From morning into afternoon, a small crowd swarms around the walk-up window, waiting for their riffs on Japanese convenience-store sandos (pork or eggplant katsu, the Instagram-hogging egg salad, the even better rolled omelet sandwich). Ever-changing salads deserve just as much love; yuba sparked with pickles and chile oil vinaigrette or root vegetables and Asian pear in miso dressing have a sly, earthy sort of umami. It helps that the owners employ some commanding talent: That include Miles Thompson, who gave the cooking at Michael’s in Santa Monica fresh life last decade, and pastry chef Kiyoshi Tsukamoto, who is fashioning mind-benders like twice-baked almond croissants filled with roasted figs and frangipane laced with blue corn.
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Cornis combo from Lalibela
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Lalibela

Little Ethiopia Ethiopian $$
What a joy to return to Lalibela’s calm warren of rooms in the Little Ethiopia district. Owner Tenagne Belachew and her staff use injera-covered trays like painter’s palettes, arranging spiced pulses, salads and complex meat stews in vivid pigments. The colors and flavors will bleed together; your fingertips are the brushstrokes. Think of the 14-dish “veggie utopia” as the base for a meal, and then add something like yebeg alicha wot, a mild and creamy lamb sauté. In the past I’ve recommended the special kitfo, beef tartare glowing with butter stained by mitmita (a staple Ethiopian spice blend with a clear note of cardamom) and eaten with soft, fresh cheese and pureed collards. Currently I’m enamored with the restaurant’s Somali-style kitfo, which roars with fiercer spicing and the direct heat of jalapeños.
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The #54, a pastrami and corned beef combo sandwich, dressed in the style of the #19, with Swiss cheese and cole slaw and Russian style dressing, from Langer's Deli.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Langer’s

Westlake American $$
A recent midweek lunch at L.A.’s most celebrated deli was unsettlingly quiet (not too long ago the waits for a booth to open up could stretch to 20 minutes or more). A reminder, then, not to take for granted the No. 19, an unorthodox but nonetheless holy union of hand-carved pastrami, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing. It should be named the official sandwich of Los Angeles. I’ve been experimenting with a new hack: Ordering the No. 54 (pastrami and corned beef combo) and asking for it dressed like the No. 19. I worry the request will be taken as heresy, but the server never flinches.
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Shumai and har gow from Lunasia.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Lunasia

Alhambra Chinese $$
The question as to which restaurant makes the best dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley will never have a fixed, everlasting answer; making the rounds to update opinions is part of the fun. Lunasia is my current favorite. The har gow look almost worrisomely large each time they arrive. Will they be gluey masses? They never are: The delicate, translucent wrappers give way to pieces of shrimp with actual snap to them. Lo mai gai, the sticky, meaty rice bundles wrapped in lotus leaves, are particularly fragrant and balanced, and the layer of lap cheong over taro cakes adds a porky dimension. The dining room in Alhambra (the superior of the three locations, as the endless weekend crowds will attest) has become a handsome labyrinth of plexiglass partitions. Since Lunasia never relied on carts for service, the setup feels safe and snug and could stay up indefinitely.
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Birria tacos on a plate with lime
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Macheen at Milpa Grille

Boyle Heights Mexican $
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.

His breakfast burritos are among my favorites in the city (and I’ve eaten my share). Perez lines flour tortillas with creamy scrambled eggs enriched with nutty Swiss cheese and then piles on spiced, deep-fried Tater Tots. Meaty options include birria with chipotle aioli, pork belly with avocado salsa and (the standout) Filipino longanisa with salsa macha. For vegetarians, there are Brussels sprouts frizzled to papery curls and glossed with chipotle aioli.

Milpa Grille still serves owner Deysi Serrano’s Mesoamerican-inspired bowls, built on beans and corn, and enchiladas bathed in guajillo chile sauce. She also hosts baristas Xuan Carlos Espinoza and Joel Espinoza — they call their pop-up Cafe Cafe Mobile and make espressos or pour-overs with beans from places like Puebla and Oaxaca. The crisis has challenged the restaurant industry to reconsider its entrenched models of business; this kind of under-one-roof symbiosis might be a blueprint to help lead the way forward.
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Boiled chicken on rice
(Dylan + Jeni / For The Times)

Majordomo

Chinatown American $$$
Any restaurant that even vaguely heeds the Southern California seasons winds up with a tomato and stone fruit salad on its summertime menu. Executive chef Jude Parra-Sickels and his team make the one I most anticipate every year — meltingly ripe fruit splashed with a nutty sherry vinaigrette that brightens the sweetness of peaches and teases extra umami out of tomatoes. Plus, it clicks with every other starter on the table: soft flatbreads to be smeared with good butter and folded around kerchiefs of Allan Benton’s country ham; sausage-stuffed peppers that nod to Korean pan-fried gochu jeon; small fried oxtails buried in salsa seca.

This being the strongest West Coast arm of David Chang’s vast empire, Majordomo will always accommodate groups of diners who demand the gargantuan short rib ssam. But also consider the boiled chicken served in two courses: masterclass-level poached breast meat sliced and served over rice with two sauces (ginger-scallion and a heady red chile paste), followed by soup made from double-rich stock and teeming with hand-cut noodles. It might not have the swagger of the ssam, but I’d argue that it’s even more delicious.
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The Poseidon from Mariscos Jalisco
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Mariscos Jalisco

Boyle Heights Mexican $
When a friend who’s a native Angeleno came to town in May to see family and friends for the first time since the pandemic began, she had a request: Can we go to Mariscos Jalisco? Absolutely. Since 2002, Raul Ortega has been parking his shiny lonchera on Olympic Boulevard, serving what has become one of the city’s canonic dishes: tacos dorados de camaron. Two fried corn tortillas grip spiced shrimp that maintain a mysterious creaminess (Ortega gives away no secrets) even as their edges crisp a bit in hot oil. A thin tomato salsa, its juices already soaking into the hot masa, blankets the top with avocado slices. Don’t delay, don’t take them elsewhere: Wolf them down right there, perched on the short, painted brick wall in front of the truck. For variety’s sake order the Poseidon, an aguachile-ceviche mashup of shrimp, octopus, cucumber, avocado and tomato finished in a scorching salsa. My friend and I? We asked for another round of tacos.
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Fish curry from Mayura
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Mayura

Palms Indian $$
Why, among all the Indian restaurants in the vast metro area, has Mayura been a mainstay on the 101 list for so long? In a word: Kerala. Owner Padmini Aniyan grew up in the coastal southwestern state of India, where millennia of global influences via maritime trade routes and a lush climate (it’s a global center of spice production) created one of the world’s most distinctive cuisines. You taste its uniqueness immediately in the smoky red fish curry flavored with kudampuli, a dried tamarind-like fruit unique to Southeast Asia. The uses of rice in Kerala extend far beyond boiling. As one example: Puttu, steamed cylinders of ground rice and grated coconut with a texture somewhere between lacy and fluffy, are a breakfast staple. Try them here, served with chana masala, as part of a lunch or dinner meal. Mayura’s menu is huge, admittedly, and veers through chicken tikka, gobi Manchurian and other restaurant ubiquities. Flip straight to the “Mayura Specials” section, where most of the Kerala-specific dishes are listed.
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Vegetarian combination plate with dorowot
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Meals by Genet

Little Ethiopia Ethiopian $$
In May, Genet Agonafer announced her semi-retirement — she’d prepare takeout from her Little Ethiopia institution Thursday through Sunday, and open her dining room for private events only. While part of me wishes mightily to bask in the warmth and bustle of her restaurant as it once was, mostly I’m grateful that Angelenos can still be nourished by her cooking. Her vegetarian combination platter still reigns among the city’s supreme meat-free pleasures, a color wheel of bright green collards, ruddy lentils and orange-tinted split peas, turmeric-stained cabbage and carrots, tomato salad and lemony beets. And it’s hard to envision L.A. dining culture without her doro wat, chicken simmered with sharp, earthy berbere spices for two days until every flavor blends into indivisible harmony. Thankfully, that day need not yet be imagined.
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