Their tastes linger still
Is this list organic, artisanal, free-range, small-plate, modernist, hand-crafted, small-batch, and 100% sustainable? Not quite. But it should be!
1 Juicy crab and pork bun. If you’ve spent much time eating in the San Gabriel Valley , you have probably become adept in the various rituals of the Chinese table. This food is meant to be wrapped in a pancake, that one to be seethed in broth, the other one to be extracted with a dental implement. But nothing quite prepares you for the signature buns -- tender-skinned water balloons stuffed with pork and crab -- at the Wuxi-style dumpling house Wang Xing Ji. If you try to lift it with a spoon, it disintegrates under its own weight; if you attack it with chopsticks, you are liable to be squirted with boiling juice. Finally you remember the plastic implement served with the dumpling, and you intuit its proper use. You will feel silly sipping hot crab juice through a straw, but your shirt and your dignity will be saved. 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 211, San Gabriel, (626) 307-1188.
2 Sea snail tostada. At Street Food Fest, the annual summer gathering of the food trucks at the Rose Bowl, observers tend to notice a couple of things. One is the extraordinary profusion of Los Angeles food trucks, which tend to become odder and more specialized by the year. And the other is the astonishingly high quality of the loncheros, traditional Mexican street vendors, whose products are honed through years of hard-fought competition. The last couple years have seen several stalls operated by the best chefs from the refined yet street-oriented food movement now sweeping through northern Baja. And this year, nothing was better than the simple tostadas from the La Guerrerense cart in Ensenada: a crisp tortilla; a handful of sliced, marinated sea snail, and fugal drips of super-spicy house-made chile sauce splashed onto the tostadas from jars -- earth and sea and pain and pleasure in a single crunchy bite. Cart at corner of 1st and Alvarado in Zona Centro, Ensenada.
3 Vegetable paella. Even in Los Angeles, where you can find everything, paella has been nearly impossible to find. For years, the default best version of the rice dish has been the one served by reservation on Saturday afternoons at La Espanola, a Spanish butcher in an obscure industrial park in Harbor City, but even that had little relation to the sublime paella you find in rural restaurants outside Valencia. But this year Perfecto Rocher, a credentialed young chef actually from the Valencia countryside, popped up at Lazy Ox and prepared the real thing one night a week -- massive pans of plump bomba rice piled only a few grains deep for maximal caramelization; made with bean broth instead of meat stock; rich, concentrated and delightfully chewy. Then he disappeared, taking his paella with him. Rocher is supposed to be opening a new restaurant this spring. I recommend you be there, spoon in hand.
4 Veal tartare. The best thing to eat at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Cut has always been his bone-marrow flan, a dish so elegant in its simplicity that you might assume it had been borrowed from Escoffier rather than invented by his team. So when you encounter a snowy marrow bone at Puck’s re-invented Spago, you might be expecting a similar dish. Since Fergus Henderson’s re-imagining of the roasted bone at his St. John’s in London, marrow bones have become kind of a thing. But Puck’s bone is stuffed with a classic, pickle-intensive tartare made with veal filet mignon instead of beef, and the ends are capped with chilled, smoked mascarpone that tinges the concoction with hints of barbecue. It’s what bartenders like to call a twist on a twist. 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 385-0880.
5 Toast with Santa Rosa plum chutney and Sonoma pecorino. This was a year when the ideas of craft and homespun virtue crashed over the land like a sticky wave of artisanally gathered honey, and pop heroes began to include micro-distillers and baconistas as well as actors and banjo players. Making great preserves from superb California fruit is not a new idea, but Jessica Koslow turned out to be very good at it, and her gift is never more apparent than with this plain yet magnificent toast preparation from her preserves-focused Sqirl cafe. If your tastes lean less toward the minimalist than the baroque, have it topped with bacon and a lightly fried duck egg. 720 N. Virgil Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 394-6526.
6 Popcorn with bacon. Call them California izakaya, call them small-plates joints, or call them gastropubs -- the year was dominated by restaurants specializing in share plates, small-batch alcohol, and bar snacks elevated with exotic fats. Do we really need duck-fat fries and pig’s foot poutine? As it turns out, the answer is yes. So while the wood-oven specialist Tar & Roses roasts healthful things like snap peas and cauliflower and salmon over its fruitwood or oak, what you will best remember is its simplest appetizer, a concoction of popcorn tossed with brown sugar, lardons and chile, like a bowl of Cracker Jack with chewy cubes of bacon instead of peanuts. 602 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 587-0700.
7 Foie gras with grapes. As the demonization of foie gras accelerated, and last July’s ban loomed, California’s chefs, even the ones who probably dismissed the stuff as a luxury cliche, nudged the duck liver into a kind of renaissance, and for a glorious few months you saw foie gras everywhere -- in waffles, tossed atop loco moco, and stuffed into jelly doughnuts. Maybe the best of the transgressive foie gras dishes was the de-constructed pate en croute at downtown’s wonderful new Baco Mercat, with seared duck liver instead of the meat paste, shards of crisp pie crust where you usually find damp pastry, and sauteed grapes in place of the customary squiggle of gelled fruit. 408 S. Main St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-8808.
8 Squid with sea urchin. Shunji, perhaps the most spectacular new Japanese restaurant of the year, clearly didn’t sink its capital into the decor; it occupies a former chili restaurant whose exterior is actually in the shape of a bowl. The money all goes into the fish. And while the soul of the place probably lies in the odd and wonderful fish the chef flies in from Japan several times a week, what you remember is an impossibly luxurious concoction of julienned raw squid, squid ink, sea urchin and black truffles, on which a quail yolk floats like a vivid yellow eye set in a sea of pure blackness. 12244 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 826-4737.
9 Salad. Are the flavors of California the rich, spicy ones developed during the centuries the state was a part of Spanish Mexico? Does it include the Mediterranean ingredients that are so much a part of the current farm-oriented cuisine? Or could California express itself in quieter tones, the mildly acidic resonances of native clovers, the restrained nuttiness of mountain chickweed, and the subtle tang of soured milk? The salads at Alma vary from day to day and week to week and may involve various non-native chicories, or sunflower seeds, or nuts, but what you invariably taste is a different, more romantic California, like the one painted by local Impressionists at the turn of the last century. 952 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 444-0984.
10 Ten don. The ten don at Hannosuke is a less than overwhelming sight, a beige mass of fried vegetables and seafood heaped on a bowl of rice. It is moistened with a sticky sauce. If you are a strict empiricist, the tempura on the ten don, basically the only dish at the restaurant, may seem to lack the crispness and the featherweight crunch that you might expect from the product of a branch of a famous Tokyo tempura bar. But Hannosuke’s aesthetic takes hold in an instant. That slightly sogged-out crunch -- is still really crunchy, expressive of the roasty, nutty flavors of the expensive sesame oil used for frying; of the subtle sweetness of prawns and Tokyo eel. You do not expect to find perfection in a supermarket food court. In Mitsuwa Market, 3760 S. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles.