If you're looking to make your way through Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants list but don’t have the budget for elaborate tasting menus, the following are 14 restaurants on the list that won't break the bank — from grain-and-fermentation bowls to Baja-style clams and ceviche, to bowls of zhajiangmian, to some incendiary fried chicken. The democratization of fine dining? Indeed.
When you talk about the democratization of fine dining, Guerrilla Tacos is Exhibit A. Chef Wes Avila uses the same farmers market produce, high-end seafood and sustainably raised meat as the best chefs in town, including the occasional Perigord truffle. His sauces are exquisite. And if you happen to be by Blacktop or Cognoscenti Coffee when his truck rolls by, you can eat what is in effect a first-rate tasting menu, except you are sitting on the curb instead of having a white tablecloth spread before you, the dishes come rolled into tortillas instead of on fine china and you are spending a tiny fraction of the cost.
There are huge surf clams, marinated in bitter orange juice, spilling in swirls from their shells; huge, fresh oysters from Oregon; and one of the best shrimp cocktails in the city — plump, crisp bits in a purée-filled sundae glass crowned with a single steamed prawn. The blood clams surpass what you’ve had at the famous Baja street stands. The tortas, butter-crisped French rolls stuffed with avocado and breaded shrimp, are predictably spectacular. And the yellowtail-uni ceviche is magnificent, melting into the sharp chile-lime snap of its marinade, with a glorious excess of rich, fresh sea urchin roe. Is transcendence too much to ask from a seafood tostada? That I’ll leave up to you.
The walls of fermentation crocks make the dining room resemble a makeshift biology lab. One of the most famous dishes is a plate of kimchi fried rice that tastes strongly of fermented pineapple; the other, while delicious, involves soaked macadamia nuts, onions scented with rose petals, and a pink, creamy slosh of mold. The restaurant, located next to the 7-Eleven in a strip mall, is named after a monk’s begging bowl.
The current predilections for the flavors of sorrel, turmeric, burnt bread and ricotta toast didn’t start with Sqirl chef Jessica Koslow, but they may as well have. Who waits 90 minutes in line for a bowl of porridge? Still, the moment the braised chickpeas, the grilled cheese with tomato jam, the kale tabbouleh and the sorrel pesto rice hit the makeshift table, you’ve already forgotten what you were so sore about, and you regret only not having gotten a second matcha with almond milk for the road. Life is funny that way.
Kobee Factory & Syrian Kitchen
When Waha Ghreir moved here from Homs, Syria, 40 years ago, she swears she did not know how to so much as crack an egg. But her kobee, delicately spiced capsules stuffed with bulgur and chopped meat, is fairly extraordinary, served either grilled or fried, with a compelling illusion of lightness when the thin, supple crust dissolves under your teeth. The stuffed lamb intestines look like a Halloween nightmare, but turn out to be delicate, mild rice sausages in a cinnamon-scented broth.
Valley Boulevard has become almost a Little Sichuan lately, a thoroughfare lubricated with bean paste and scarlet chile oil. And while you could probably float from Alhambra to Rosemead on a sea of dan dan noodles, if you yearn to be blown sideways by a bowl of beef noodles or zhajiangmian, there is nothing quite like the Chongqing-style small-eats house Mian, the strip mall noodle shop opened by Tony Xu, the chef behind the astonishingly popular Chengdu Taste.
The restaurant is staffed by people who live in Watts. Locol’s cooking is less a replacement for fast food than a better version of it. The burgers and sandwiches are served on soft, griddled buns developed by Chad Robertson of the famous San Francisco bakery Tartine. The food feels handmade. And while Locol may be only one version of the future of food, it is one that we all can live with: good food for all.
Grand Central Market
It is convenient sometimes to think of the century-old sprawl of Grand Central Market as a single entity, a living, breathing organism whose cells are constantly replenishing themselves, although the outward appearance stays the same. Is it still Latin American? Not quite, although the best carnitas downtown are still at Villa Moreliana, Roast to Go and Ana Maria are still serving gorditas, the hand-ground moles from Chiles Secos are still lovely, and the lines at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas are still long. And it is still impossible to imagine downtown without it.
Chef Roy Choi’s Kogi is cheap, delicious and unmistakably from Los Angeles, food that makes you feel plugged into the rhythms of the city just by eating it. The grilled short rib tacos taste like home.
Attari Sandwich Shop
Attari is not a temple of Iranian cuisine — it’s a simple lunch spot in a shady Westwood patio, although sometimes it does seem like a bit of Tehran café life circa 1975. The restaurant is famous in Tehrangeles for the dense vegetable soup called osh. The jam-thick stewed eggplant, kashke badjeman, is nice. But on Fridays, the crowd is there for ab-goosht: a plate of mashed chickpeas and lamb served with a basket of lemony herbs, thin flatbread and a cup of their essential juices to enjoy as soup.
There may not be an item of food more reliable than Raul Ortega’s taco dorado de camarones, a fried taco stuffed with impeccably fresh shrimp, among other things, slightly crisp around the edges, sluiced with a juicy, spicy tomato salsa and garnished with a bit of ripe avocado on the side. The tacos taste of clean oil and chile; toasted corn and the sea — a recipe imported from Ortega’s hometown of San Juan de los Lagos that has become the culinary symbol of Boyle Heights.
Sapp Coffee Shop
The star of the menu is a murky, gamy, intensely spicy boat noodle soup loaded with all manner of slithery beef things, a dish that comes perilously close to being the best Thai dish in L.A. Other things show up at the table, of course — the gray, unlovely nam sod is actually a terrific, citrus-tart version of the pork and pigskin salad, and the cool jade noodles, dyed green with puréed herbs and tossed with all manner of Chinese barbecue, are ideal on a hot day. The duck noodle soup is secretly the best in Thaitown. You can find pandan and butterfly pea flower infusions sometimes, and exemplary Thai iced coffee.
What happens when you take your first bite of Howlin’ Hot fried chicken? You will aim to get as much of the fragrant skin as possible between your teeth, and the experience is of salt, crunch and garlic, overlaid with the pungency of dried peppers. It is excellent fried chicken. Then the punch of heat lands — you may experience it almost as a blow to the chest, but then the endorphins kick in, and you float on an eddy of bliss for a moment. Then you go back in for more. The chicken has won.
Marouch has fragrant roast chicken, superior hummus and baba ghanouj. The toasted bread salad fattoush is tangy and crispy. Maroush has nightly specials of Armenian home cooking in addition to the parade of mezze, barbecued quail and beautiful sujuk sausages, and Sossi Brady’s knafeh, rosewater-scented rice pudding and creamy pudding ashtaare as nice as her savory dishes.