Here is a sampling of Jonathan Gold’s restaurant reviews, which reflect the range, democracy and idiosyncrasy of his amazing palate. Among his contributions to the L.A. culinary scene: championing young chefs and their unassuming, out-of-the-way places.
The boiled fish in green pepper sauce sneaks up on you like a prizefighter in the ninth round; the electric charge of Sichuan peppercorns flits around your lips and tongue with the weird vibrancy of a flashing Las Vegas sign. The chile-steeped slices of cold beef shank, the cold mung bean noodles tossed with spicy bean paste and pork, the old-fashioned mapo tofu, the numb-taste wonton — no matter how many people you bring to Chengdu Taste, you will never be able to order enough. Chengdu Taste is the most influential restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, the place you take visiting friends when you want to tempt them to move to L.A.
828 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 588-2284.
Sapp Coffee Shop
Sapp served a really great dish of chicken with rice the other day. I thought I should mention this because I have probably ordered the same thing 99 out of the 100 last times I’ve been there, a murky, gamy, intensely spicy boat noodle soup loaded with all manner of slithery beef things, a dish that comes perilously close to being my favorite Thai dish in L.A.
5183 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 665-1035.
It’s the first place your cousin from Ohio wants to go when she gets into town. You can probably trace the popularity of grain bowls, avocado toast and $13 jam to Sqirl …. The current predilections for the flavors of sorrel, turmeric, burnt bread and ricotta toast didn’t start with 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. Life is funny that way.
720 N. Virgil Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 284-8147, sqirlla.com
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the best time to visit Guelaguetza is when Mexico is playing in the World Cup, when there is nowhere you would rather be contemplating both the fried grasshoppers and the pickled scorpion at the bottom of the mezcal bottle …. There are a lot of Oaxacan restaurants in Los Angeles now, and it is possible to debate the merits of the mole coloradito at one and the molotes at another, but Guelaguetza remains the most accomplished Oaxacan restaurant in the United States.
3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 427-0608, ilovemole.com
If you were going to write a novel about 2017 Orange County, Taco Maria might be a good place to start. Young cook from a Mexican-restaurant family leaves home to work in a famous modernist kitchen, and returns to run a taco truck, which quickly leads to a tasting-menu restaurant in a comically overwrought hipster mall, then fame for the chef’s breathtaking “Chicano cuisine.” It’s straight out of Jonathan Franzen. But while it is easy to dismiss the perfection of Carlos Salgado’s narrative, it is far more difficult to dismiss his food.
SoCo Collection, 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 538-8444, tacomaria.com
Night + Market Song
Night + Market Song may still be the sparest restaurant in a stretch of Silver Lake not known for luxury, a long, bare room that could pass as the rec room in a Downey apartment complex, decorated with a Thai banner and a Cindy Crawford poster. The wine list is plump with ridiculously small-production Loire wines and pet-nats that any sommelier in town would kill to put on her own list. This is Thai restaurant as experimental theater.
3322 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 665-5899, nightmarketsong.com
Nickel may attract more loft-dwellers than artists these days, there are leeks and fontina in scrambled eggs, and the pastries go beyond bacon-maple doughnuts now, but this is still deep downtown, a half-block from the infamous stretch of 5th Street that troubadours like Tom Waits used to sing about. Pancakes and thick-cut bacon, fried catfish and corn cakes, Lowrider Burgers and Hangover Helper — that’s why you go to Nickel, which caters as much to the local street people as it does to the tax attorneys who roll in on skateboards.
524 S. Main St., Los Angeles, (213) 623-8301, nickeldiner.com
In some parts of town, the rivalry between Marouch and Carousel, the two old-school Armenian-Lebanese restaurants in Little Armenia, is taken as seriously as UCLA-USC. Marouch has the most fragrant roast chicken, but some people lean toward Carousel for kebabs. The Kardashian family frequents Carousel. 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 ashta are as nice as her savory dishes. Advantage: Marouch.
4905 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 662-9325, marouchrestaurant.com
When out-of-town friends come to Los Angeles, I take them to the Mariscos Jalisco truck every time. Because 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 …. Are you going to want some ceviche too? It goes without saying.
3040 E. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 528-6701
Meals by Genet
That doro wot, a resonant chicken stew flavored with berbere, cloves and goosefoot herb, is among the great chicken dishes of the world. I would be devastated if I never got to taste Genet Agonafer’s doro wot again, and I’m not the one laboring in the kitchen for three days on the sauce.
1053 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 938-9304, mealsbygenetla.com
It is hard not to be fond of Mayura, jammed into a mini-mall near Sony, popular with the studio crowd as well as multigenerational families, which specializes in the cooking of Kerala, a southern Indian state whose flavors have been shaped by a thousand years of spice trading. Even if you frequent other local southern Indian restaurants, it is hard not to admire Mayura’s pure white appam pancakes, its complexly spiced fish curry, or the rice porridge ven pongal, lashed with cumin, cashews and ungodly amounts of melted butter.
10406 Venice Blvd., Culver City, (310) 559-9644, mayura-indian-restaurant.com
The kitchen is a land without tweezers, liquid nitrogen or offset spatulas. Jonathan Gold on Petit Trois
Ludovic Lefebvre is a famous and beloved chef, but ordinariness is more or less the point at Petit Trois; the worn-bistro look, the stiff counter seating, the half-liter carafes of wine. The kitchen is a land without tweezers, liquid nitrogen or offset spatulas. And what it serves is the kind of unpretentious cooking you may remember from your first trip to France, when you may have thought you were tasting a real green salad for the first time. The omelets are perfect, but nothing more than an omelet should be, slightly runny on the inside and rolled around a bit of Boursin, which is more or less the French equivalent of Velveeta. The steak-frites is extraordinary only in that those frites have been cooked in clarified butter.
718 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, petittrois.com
You could play it safe with curried mussels and the crunchy salad made with fried morning glory, but you will have missed a bit of the wildness in Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee’s cooking. On the other hand, curried fish kidneys and fried silkworms with chile may not be your jam — but if you try to meet Jitlada halfway, you need never be bored.
5233 1/2 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 667-9809, jitladala.com
There are Koreatown barbecue restaurants serving every possible niche at the moment …. but Park’s BBQ, a modernist dining room under the direction of Jenee Kim, was the restaurant that changed the game: upping the prices, using prime and Wagyu beef instead of lesser grades, and introducing cuts like rare-breed pork belly and the super-marbled rib-eye called ggot sal. Kim brought the quality of meat closer to places like Mastro’s and Cut. Park’s is no longer the only place in Koreatown using great meat, but its brand of Korean barbecue is still beyond compare.
955 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 380-1717, parksbbq.com
Roy Choi, it must be acknowledged, is about as present as it is possible for a chef to be, dropping DJ jams at what everybody thought was a food event, popping up in movies and in cable series, discussing poverty and hunger in settings both informal and academic …. 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.
Find the trucks at kogibbq.com
The current Spago, in Beverly Hills, has defined fine dining in Los Angeles for the last two decades. Wolfgang Puck is the man who showed the world what a great American chef might be …. And although an almost unimaginable number of people flow through Spago now, and it sells a lot of meat and potatoes, Puck, executive chef Lee Hefter and chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi manage to keep Spago relevant year after year. … Spago’s cooking flickers around the edges of memory and desire while never quite succumbing to them.
176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 385-0880, wolfgangpuck.com
Nancy Silverton is tsar of the Mozza empire, a small neighborhood of Italian eating places at the corner of Melrose and Highland avenues …. There is Pizzeria Mozza whose crisp, risen wood-fired pizzas are of a type you will find nowhere in Italy, which bothers some Italian purists but pretty much nobody else. Mozza2Go is a takeout counter with a small specialty in Puglia-style focaccia, among other things. Chi Spacca is an Italian meat restaurant, whose mammoth fiorentina steaks, grilled tomahawk pork chops massaged with fennel pollen and house-cured salumi are probably the best in town. Silverton herself presides over the mozzarella bar tucked into Osteria Mozza, the fanciest restaurant in the group. Any of the components would be among the better restaurants in town; together, they command L.A.'s universe of rustic Italian cuisine.
Michael Cimarusti does everything that a great chef should. Much of the fish he uses is local and sustainable, obtained through a Dock to Dish program he helped to set up. Cooks are awed by the rigor of his kitchen. His commitment to local flavors — not just yellowtail, rockfish and sea urchin, but also Asian notes that find their way into his dishes as naturally as the expected European ones — and the flow of his menus (geoduck and oyster with Vietnamese basil, local squid with the Japanese pepper paste yuzu kosho, abalone with sunchoke, rockfish with cranberry beans) reflect Los Angeles not just as a great port city but also as part of a specific ecosystem, a unique intersection of land and sea.
5955 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 460-4170, providencela.com
The entire experience at Vespertine, from the lack of right angles in the dining room, to the throbbing four-note soundtrack, to the overwhelming abstraction of the food, to the stunning cost of dinner, is going to drive many of you insane. Yet, looked at as an artwork, where the architect Eric Owen Moss, the ceramicist Ryota Aoki and the musicians in the post-rock band This Will Destroy You are as vital to the experience as the chef, Vespertine is in its way perfect.
3599 Hayden Ave., Culver City, (323) 320-4023, verspertine.la
Wes Avila’s .... 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 that 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. When you talk about the democratization of fine dining, Guerrilla Tacos is Exhibit A.
Find locations at guerrillatacos.com
When somebody asks me to name the best dish in Koreatown, I invariably tell them to try Soban’s ganjang gaejang, an ultrafresh raw crab briefly marinated in house-made soy sauce — a glorious, gelatinous, sea-briny mess. If Soban weren’t so genteel, you can almost imagine yourself wrestling for the leg, scooping up rogue lumps of roe, or turning the shell over to scrape out whatever fragments of tomalley might have adhered to the inside.
4001 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 936-9106, soban.site.mobi
Chad Valencia’s cooking captures the extreme regionality of the dishes in the Philippines’ zillion islands. He slashes refreshing vinegar and citrus notes with the funk of fish sauce, in the ceviche kinilaw, for example, or in Filipino beef tartare. He takes advantage of the cuisine’s tendency to accommodate both vegetable-forward and nose-to-tail sensibilities, sometimes in the same dish: crisp pigtails with thinly sliced turnips or chunks of braised, crisped pork belly with squash, served over a silken, smoky puree of roasted eggplant.
727 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 443- 6163.
These excerpts were culled from Gold’s annual ranking of Southern California’s best restaurants. For more, go to Gold’s 101.