Whether it's Indian achaar or Japanese nukazuke, pickles of all varieties are featured on menus around the city, and not just as side dishes. What was once used as a necessary form of preservation is now a way for chefs to playfully showcase their seasonal ingredients.
The pickle plate began appearing on L.A. menus around the time "gastropub" entered our culinary vocabulary, but some restaurants are taking it to new heights. Here's a look at some great places for pickles, where microbes equal serious flavor.
Nukazuke at Yakitoriya: These Japanese pickles are fermented in rice bran mixed with kombu seaweed, moist bread and crushed eggshells. The end result is the Japanese equivalent of a deli "new pickle," with a sting similar to horseradish rather than a chile pepper. At Yakitoriya, radishes, carrots and cucumbers are stored in what looks like a wet sand slushie with a pungent, slightly sour, nose-tickling odor. The excess bran is wiped away, and the pickles are served thinly sliced with a dash of soy sauce and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.
11301 W. Olympic Blvd., No. 101, Los Angeles, (310) 479-5400
Escabeche at Bar Amá: When you think escabeche, the mixture of pickled jalapeños, carrots and onion you find with the condiments on a taco truck, you think street food. But at Josef Centeno's downtown Tex-Mex restaurant Bar Amá, it's a dish on its own. The slivers of peppers take on that familiar olive green hue, and the few seeds that cling to the chiles give them some heat. If you can, you'll want to save some to eat with your chips and queso. The spicy, tart vegetables underpin the richness of the cheese, and you're reminded of the comfort of movie theater nachos but on a much, much higher level.
118 W. 4th St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-8002, www.bar-ama.com
Chinese pickles at Da Qing Hua: People may go to this San Gabriel Chinese pancake house for the beef rolls, but the star on every table is a small container of spicy, crunchy, addictively sour pickled cabbage. After that initial pucker of the lips, the slightly artificial tasting sweetness in the brine kicks in (my Chinese grandmother favors Sweet'n Low in her pickles), and you're left with the urge to suck every last bit of moisture off the vegetables. Their eye-opening zing cuts through the restaurant's rich noodle soups and doughy pancakes nicely.
706 W. Las Tunas Drive, No. B2-B4, San Gabriel, (626) 293-8098
Giardiniera at Union: Bruce Kalman features pickles heavily on his menu at Union. They show up in such places as antipasti boards and duck agnolotti. For his giardiniera, he uses a pickling brine made from pickled serrano chiles, distilled white vinegar, natural cane sugar and sea salt. He pickles a mixture of cauliflower, carrots, celery, red bell peppers and onion, then tosses them with a California Olive Ranch oil that just softens the bite from the vinegar and really lets the vegetables shine. They are served with bread and butter, a combination that may make it hard to order a second course.
37 E. Union St., Pasadena, (626) 795-5841, www.unionpasadena.com
Not quite achaar at Badmaash: The pickles at this downtown Indian restaurant aren't the pungent sour mash you'll find at a traditional Indian restaurant or grocery store. Chef Pawan Mahendro cooks his carrots, red onion and mushrooms until the outer edges just begin to soften, then lets them sit in a brine for three to four days. When you bite into the soft, spongy mushrooms, there's an explosion of pickling liquid in your mouth. The carrots are flexible but crisp, and just the aroma of the vinegar on the onions will make you salivate. Eat them plain or use them to add texture to your bowl of channa masala.
108 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles, (213) 221-7466, www.badmaashla.com
Pickled chorizo at Plan Check Kitchen + Bar: Chef Ernesto Uchimura was inspired by the pickled sausages and eggs found in cloudy jars at the back of old, divey bars. Wanting to create his own version of salty, sour beer snacks, without all the nitrates, he decided to make pickled chorizo. Uchimura uses a locally sourced, aged chorizo he pickles with red wine vinegar, garlic or green garlic when available, sugar, kosher salt, jalapeño and a blend of secret spices. When you bite into the small rounds of sliced meat, the smokiness of the sausage is there, enhanced by a burst of tangy vinegar and a sweet finish.
1800 N. Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 444-1411; 351 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles; 1111 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 403-1616; www.plancheck.com
Kimchi at Kaesung Kimchi: Sook-Jae Cho has been making kimchi for 40 years. She keeps her small Koreatown storefront stocked daily with a panoply of jarred vegetables, including the classic cabbage kimchi and white radish kimchi made with no chile. Her kimchi, like most, is slightly wilted, but the tender leaves of cabbage retain their crunch. After fermenting in a mixture of vinegar, water and chile, you're left with a tangy, spicy, complex pickle with a signature umami.
110 S. St. Andrews Place, Los Angeles, (323) 737-6565