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(Illustration by Kay Scanlon / Los Angeles Times; Photos by Myung J. Chun, Francine Orr and Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Where to eat outside in L.A. right now

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The scope of Los Angeles’ dining culture has never been simple to characterize — “diverse” doesn’t begin to describe its overlap of communities, cuisines, street foods and glittering rooms, triumphs and struggles — but it’s fair to say that things have never been more complex.

Nearly six months ago the city was the nation’s epicenter of the pandemic; in a remarkable turnaround, we entered the state’s yellow tier for reopening in early May. Restaurants can fill indoor spaces to 50% capacity. Bars can welcome back patrons. Health officials project that adults in California could reach herd immunity from the coronavirus by mid-July.

A whole lot of Angelenos have returned to restaurants: Big-name places are booked weeks and, in many cases, months ahead. Plenty of smaller neighborhood restaurants are still rebuilding their customer bases, or remain focused on takeout. No one overall narrative describes the recovering landscape.

Are you eating in the world again? To frame this moment of spring renewal we directed our appetites toward outdoor dining, with an emphasis on newer restaurants and some under-the-radar pearls we especially love. The roster includes tacos and tlayudas, sushi and ramen, dumplings and congee and beef noodle soup, the coolest hot chicken sandwich and a rooftop hot spot.

Looking for more dining inspiration? Check out The Times’ annual 101 restaurants guide for some of our favorite restaurants (and incredible pop-ups) across Los Angeles.

Food Bowl is making financial contributions to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Please show your support and donate now.

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Bahn beo from 5 Stars Hue
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

5 Stars Hue

San Gabriel Valley Vietnamese $
As the name of this growing chain of restaurants located throughout the San Gabriel Valley suggests, its menu focuses on dishes native to Hue, the city in central Vietnam with a long imperial history. One standout: bánh ít kẹp bánh ram (also seen on menus as bánh ít ram or banh ram ít), a dual-textured dumpling of glutinous rice dough encasing shrimp and pork perched atop a disc of lacy fried dough. It crackles, it squishes, it bursts; it’s awesome. Round out the meal with bún bò hue: The spicy beef noodle soup, ablaze from chile-stained broth and filled ruby blood cakes as soft as tofu, is designed to be customized with herbs and lime and tangles of fresh and fried onions. Some locations are takeout or inside dining only; the Alhambra outpost (housed in the same strip mall as Kang Kang Food Court) has a quiet, covered patio adjacent to the restaurant.
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Pineapple bun with egg and chicken steak at Alice's Kitchen.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Alice’s Kitchen

Monterey Park $
Congee is an art form at Alice’s Kitchen, the Hong Kong-style cafe opened in 2019 by the original owners of Delicious Food Corner. Here, you can order more than 15 varieties of the rice porridge. Pork and preserved egg, fish paste and lettuce, minced beef, chicken with abalone and dried vegetable, and pork rib congee are all options. The “fresh chicken” congee is a favorite. The porridge is silky, with a texture that’s softer and more luxurious than most. It’s mildly spiced, studded with pieces of chicken and threads of ginger. Congee is traditionally for breakfast but succeeds at fortifying regardless of the hour. (If you make it in before midafternoon, you may be able to order a split pineapple bun stuffed with chicken steak and a fried egg before they run out.) The restaurant specializes in more than just breakfast, and the menu is expansive. There will be something for everyone, but make sure there is an order of the stir-fried shrimp with salted egg yolk on the table. The plump shrimp are battered, fried and dusted with an egg yolk powder that will remind you of the Irvins salted egg potato chips (the ones that are all the rage in Singapore and elsewhere and are gaining in popularity in the U.S. too). Think pulverized egg yolks, only buttery.
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The Baja Shrimp po boy from Angry Egret Dinette
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Angry Egret Dinette

Chinatown $$
From his breakfast and lunch takeout operation in Chinatown’s Mandarin Plaza, with seating available in the quiet interior courtyard, Wes Avila is cooking in a renewed, electric flow state. If you were around for the early days of his Guerrilla Tacos — which he began early in the last decade as a stall and then, famously, a truck — you’ll recognize the restive creativity in his menu of sandwiches, wraps and wonderfully random whims. Waffles with a compote made of the season’s strawberries might show up. So could weekend specials of sopa de albondigas or a tostada jeweled with kampachi ceviche. When Angry Egret Dinette opened last fall, tacos were notably absent; lately Avila has been easing them into the mix. The excitement here is showing up never quite knowing what he’s prepared for the day — but cross your fingers that he was in the mood to make fish tacos dressed with habanero aioli and tomato salsa.
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Salmon Crudo from Bar Restaurant.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Bar Restaurant

Silver Lake French $$$
Jeff Ellermeyer’s art-filled and drolly named bistro opened five months before the March 2020 shutdowns, which clipped the momentum it was gaining as a buzzy Silver Lake haunt. But it’s cheering to settle in on Bar Restaurant’s leafy covered patio now and return to Douglas Rankin’s wittiest twists on French classics. He blankets his mussels and frites with curly fries (it works), and desserts like apple pain perdu with brie Anglaise and Mont Blanc, built on a cloud of hazelnut cream, resurrect the sweet finales of ’80s-era nouvelle cuisine. As for drinking: Bracing martinis and orange wines grease the wheels on our collectively rusty social skills.
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Lamb meatballs are served with M'hamsa stew and labneh at Barsha.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Barsha

Hermosa Beach $$
In the seemingly infinite multiverse of Los Angeles dining, the galaxy of North African cuisines feels comparatively underrepresented. One bright spot: Adnen and Lenora Marouani’s Hermosa Beach restaurant (they have a wine bar with the same name in Manhattan Beach), where Tunisian flavors thread through the Cal-Med menu. Cumin and other subtly employed spices light up mosli (seared chicken in a vegetable stew, here reimagined with quinoa). Light-handed lamb meatballs bob among m’hamsa (Tunisian couscous) in tomato broth dolloped with herbed labneh. Among the cocktails, A Night in Tunisia appeals with its start-the-evening mix of three vermouths and sherry. Locals often fill the village of tables set up in front of the restaurant. Join them.
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Asparagus pizza, left, and English pea pizza.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Bettina

Italian $$
If you’re restless and a daytime or overnight trip feels right for dipping back into traveling, Bettina is the best culinary enticement I know to visit Santa Barbara. Even amid the pizza boom that Los Angeles is experiencing, Brendan Smith’s pies stake a bold regional claim. Smith baked bread at Roberta’s in Brooklyn (during his stint there he met Rachel Greenspan, his wife and business partner); the crusts of his blistered, puffed-edged pizzas bring the same joy as a hunk of sourdough that’s just cooled enough to eat. Seek out the most seasonal inspirations, including asparagus with raclette, braised leeks and spring garlic with a splash of sherry, or English peas and sugar snap peas with a sharp mix of mozzarella, fontina and pecorino. Clever antipasti (burrata with strawberries, pleasantly sharp dandelion pesto and pistachios; fluffy meatballs with harissa tomato sauce), upbeat service and a pretty courtyard in the Montecito Country Mart add up to a destination restaurant.
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(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Broken Spanish X NeueHouse Hollywood

Hollywood Mexican $$$
A rooftop section of swank Hollywood events space NeueHouse has been converted into a pop-up that resurrects Ray Garcia’s Broken Spanish. The downtown favorite closed last August after a steep, pandemic-related drop in business — so it’s doubly rewarding to find Garcia’s cooking back in top form and to witness the Tinseltown crowd fully enthralled. He’s serving some Broken Spanish standards (duck albondigas; the whopping chicharrón, his signature) as well as some recently developed dishes. One new must-try: lamb shank coated with chintextle (Oaxacan smoked chile paste) in a pool of rich broth with garbanzos and shamrock-green peas. The pop-up began in February and was scheduled to last a month, but it’s been extended through the end of July. May it run forever.
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Beef noodle soup from Chifa
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Chifa

$$
While waiting for an outdoor table among planters filled with meticulous shrubbery, the owners of Chifa in Eagle Rock might suggest you stroll through the restaurant’s dining room. They haven’t yet opened it for service but its high design — an ’80s fever dream with low, emerald-colored velvet seats, zebra stripes racing over one wall and scallop-edge seashells along the seafoam-speckled tables — tempts like a museum display whose chairs you want to settle into. It’s the work of Humberto Leon, who co-founded the fashion brand Opening Ceremony, and his family; the restaurant is in part an homage to the restaurant his mother, Wendy Leon, ran in Lima, Peru, four decades ago. The menu is most strongly informed by the long influence of Chinese immigrants on Peruvian cuisine: beef noodle soup (the spicy option is still relatively restrained), spiced spare ribs braised in soy sauce and Shaoxing wine, zongzi (steamed sticky rice with meats, vegetables and duck egg yolk bundled in a bamboo leaf, also available vegan). Early comers snag the prize dessert: almond-scented jelly in the shape of a purple corn cob, served with candy-red chicha morada syrup. It’s a collaboration with Nünchi’s Lexie Park, and there are only a few orders each night.
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Strawberry tres leches ice cream from Dama
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Dama

Downtown L.A. $$$
Unwittingly designed for the moment, Dama boasts two tiers of outdoor space. A ground-floor patio framed by a sprawling pink banquette leads to a second, more intimate level that feels like an extension of the dining room — the Fashion District’s former Pacific Banana Co. warehouse reimagined as a cinematic Old Havana fantasy tiled in swirling pastels. The menu’s “Latin-inspired” theme gives Antonia Lofaso a broad palette with which to render her cuisine. Build a meal from smart, cocktail-friendly small plates: flaky beef empanadas jolted with vinegar; chicken croquettes gushing bechamel; cheese-filled squash blossoms; and tostadas assembled from minced seafood or lacy oxtail meat. There are churros and buñuelos for dessert, though the tres leches sundae gilded with strawberries tastes like springtime.
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The hibiscus meringue dessert at Damian
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Damian

Downtown L.A. Mexican $$$
I don’t feel quite ready to type these words, given the crisis many of us are still feeling our way out of, but it can’t be denied: Damian is the hottest restaurant in Los Angeles. The Arts District project of Enrique Olvera, whose Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme and Atla in New York are some of the defining restaurants of those cities, had been in the works for years before the pandemic. Damian’s momentum is fully realized: Tables are booked months out. Expect a full review whenever I can get back through the door, but an early meal suggests the clamor is valid: Under the local direction of chef Jesus “Chuy” Cervantes, the kitchen is putting out brainy, beautiful unions of Mexican flavors and California ideations. Smoked clams and sliced cucumbers spiral on a plate like scales on a pinecone. Dungeness crab and avocado-shiso salsa fill a gordita’s gaping masa maw. The crunch on a zucchini-topped tlayuda? Shrimp shells. The West Coast variation of Cosme’s famous corn husk meringue is dyed bright pink from hibiscus, and it’s spectacular.
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Szechuan hot chicken sando from Daybird
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Daybird

Silver Lake $
The strip-mall parking lot opposite Mei Lin’s Daybird restaurant in Silver Lake often feels frenetic. The line for the restaurant snakes along the storefronts. A security guard directs traffic. More than a few people can be found huddled along the squat wall that borders the North Virgil Avenue side of the lot, eating their fried chicken sandwiches. Even more people linger and eat on the hood of their cars. Many have asked how Lin’s Sichuan hot chicken sandwich compares to Nashville hot chicken. The answer is, it doesn’t. What Lin is doing is more reminiscent of Chonqing chicken, or la zi ji (chicken with chiles). The fried chicken thighs are glossed with Sichuan pepper-seasoned hot oil and doused with a shake that boasts no less than 30 spices, among them cumin, star anise, fennel, cinnamon, mushroom powder and green and red Sichuan peppercorns. The rigidity of the crust, a result of Lin double frying the chicken and adding water to the dredge to form “crispies,” creates ideal pockets for the seasoning. You can choose from five spice levels, each one electrified by a different pepper. The medium is ideal if you want to just feel the burn. The extreme will crash into your tastebuds and activate your tear ducts.
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Double cheeseburger from For The Win
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

For the Win

Hollywood Hills American $
Santos Uy turned his Hollywood French bistro Papilles into a casual, order-inside-and-sit-at-a-table-outside burger restaurant during the pandemic. Now he serves single, double or triple smashburgers, fried chicken sandwiches and a couple of sides. For the Win joins a growing list of pop-ups devoted to serving the kind of burger you might enjoy at a neighbor’s backyard barbecue. But while some smash their patties into oblivion, For the Win’s smashburgers are on the opposite end of the meat spectrum. There is a discernible layer of meat crust around the well-seasoned beef but the flattened patties retain their heft and, more important, their meat juices after the smash. The double is a messy, gloppy, gooey melted mess of American cheese and grilled onions. The fry sauce — a pale yellow concoction that tastes like mayonnaise and mustard — and the pickles bring some acid to the party. And the toasted Martin’s potato roll envelopes all the components in a soft squishy shell. This is what it would taste like to dip your favorite cheeseburger into a bowl of very good French onion soup. Hey, I think I’m onto something here.
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Spicy pork numpang from Gamboge
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Gamboge

Lincoln Heights $
Hak Lonh and Jane Oh opened their Cambodian restaurant in Lincoln Heights as a way to tell the story of Cambodian food and immigrant culture. (Lonh’s parents were admitted to the U.S. as Cambodian refugees in the 1980s.) Much of Lonh’s food starts with kroeung, a paste of muddled lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal, turmeric and garlic. This serves as the backbone for the entire menu. Last fall I was transfixed by Lonh’s spicy pork num pang, a version of the popular street-food sandwich you can find all over Cambodia. The pork is marinated in the kroeung and grilled, then gathered onto a toasted bolillo roll slathered with Maggi-seasoned mayo and chile sauce. The sandwich is dressed with a luxuriously rich pork pâté, papaya slaw and fresh cucumber. Lonh also is making barbecue chicken wings, marinated in the same paste and lacquered in a sweet fish sauce glaze. Whatever you choose, order a side of the Khmer pickles. The neatly diced purple cabbage, carrots, cucumber and cauliflower sit in a sweet and sour fuchsia-tinged brine and add a punch of acid to all the grilled meats.
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Gasolina’s gambas al ajillo.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Gasolina Cafe

Woodland Hills Spanish $$
The paella at Sandra Cordero’s Woodland Hills restaurant is an epic dish. Once a fleeting special on select paella nights, it’s now readily available on Gasolina’s new dinner menu. The paella de carne is creamy and saturated with hunks of brisket, rounds of chorizo and morcillo that give the rice a distinct offal unctuousness. Segments of tender broccolini are scattered throughout for some freshness and a bit of crunch. But before paella, there are croquetas, filled with bechamel suffused with threads of Serrano ham. And a meal at Gasolina is not complete without an order of the gambas al ajillo. The shrimp sit in a pool of good hot olive oil surrounded by scraps of guindilla with espelette and Paulie-from-“Goodfellas”-style slivers of garlic that melt in your mouth. It’s served with a wedge of crispy bread, and when the shrimp were long gone, I happily dragged the toasted bread along the bottom of the dish, pausing for a moment to let it sop up as much oil as possible, taking care to collect stray bits of garlic and guindilla. Tear, dip, sip some wine, repeat.
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Escargot with garlic butter and a fresh baked baguette at Gigi's.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Gigi’s

Mid-Wilshire American $$$
Gigi’s, set on an otherwise calm block in Hollywood across from Tartine and Sightglass Coffee, is a whole scene — an instant insider’s playground filled with camera-ready faces that are either already familiar or radiating the kind of confidence that lets you know they soon will be. The menu picks up exactly where broadly defined modern American menus left off before the global calamity: a little crudo, a little caviar, deviled eggs with fried oysters, agnolotti filled with a puree of the season’s vegetables and a trace of a French accent (garlicky escargot, steak frites, mussels in a vadouvan-spiced broth). The crowd and the food call for a cocktail — I’d suggest the Wilmot, a gin martini reinforced with pickled ramp. Peek into the plush dining room, with its bacchanalian-themed murals and its lighting like buttered toast. The party will move inside soon enough.
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One of Gish Bac's specialties, 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 $$
Behold Maria Ramos’s tlayuda Gish Bac — a circle of life layered with pureed black beans, lacy Oaxacan string cheese, grilled steak, chicken and chile-marinated pork, with slices of tomato, avocado and strips of rajas arranged like spokes radiating from a wheel’s center. The crackling, yielding textures, best enjoyed the moment the tlayuda hits the table, are life-affirming. Then shift your attention to barbacoa, either goat long-simmered with chiles or a less saucy, cumin-scented version with lamb. Remember Gish Bac for a serene breakfast as well, relishing enmoladas layered with chorizo or tasajo (jerky-like salt-cured beef) on the shaded back patio strung with red and silver papeles picados.
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Bouillabbong, a fusion of a traditional bouillabaisse with a spicy Korean noodle and seafood soup, from Hanchic.
(Silvia Razgova / For the Times)

Hanchic.

Westlake $$
At this tiny Westlake treasure owned by four partners, chef Kyung-bin “Justin” Min approaches Korean ingredients and dishes as springboards for bouncing off in global directions. He slips in tteok (the cylinder-shaped rice cakes) among elbow pasta for his mac and cheese, accenting the Mornay sauce with doenjang for earthen punch. Chamchi toast is a brilliant mashup between Chinese shrimp toast and the American tuna melt; gochujang adds gentle heat to the yielding textures. Bulgogi, with the sweetness from its marinade faintly and intriguingly present, laces through three-cheese risotto. His “temple bibimbap,” vegan if you ask for it with no egg, lands lightly — a springtime tonic. The restaurant resides in a tight strip mall with a few tables outside, attended by one hustling and affable server. Its edge-of-Koreatown location is an apt metaphor for the cooking, which isn’t quite like anything else around but also wholly reflects Los Angeles.
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Barramundi amandine from Hatchet Hall.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Hatchet Hall

American $$$
Louie and Netty Ryan’s restaurant patio is one of the dreamiest, roomiest outdoor dining spaces on the Westside — framed by trees and other foliage, beautifully tiled, twinkling at night with strung lights. Chef Wes Whitsell matches the mood with his expansive, fire-kissed style of cooking. His most compelling dishes conjure the South: the must-order cornbread flecked with cheddar and shishitos and pounded with butter; a riff on trout amandine with barramundi and herbed rice; grilled quail spiked with pomegranate and lots of pepper; and a side of broccoli and rice funked up with raclette. Salted banana pudding puts a seamless bow on the meal, though in their perfect springtime simplicity the macerated strawberries in cream are mighty good too.
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Herring Salad from Kalinka
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Kalinka

$$
Some Russian friends pointed the way to this under-the-radar Glendale charmer that opened in 2018. Chef and owner Tigran Elchyan calls his menu “homemade style,” which translates to some wonderfully expressive and earthy cooking: warming, brothy borscht; the layered, electric pink, Soviet-era salad known delightfully as “herring under a fur coat”; zharkoe (also spelled jarkoe), an herby, garlicky chicken stew; and beef Stroganoff that dismantles notions of the overly creamy Americanized versions. If you come with a small group, go heavy on appetizers: The pelmeni please everyone, and the dilled, thinly sliced veal tongue is excellent. The restaurant has a tented patio set up outside the restaurant.
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Chirashi bowl
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Kensho Hollywood

$$
Situated on the grounds of Yamashiro in Hollywood Hills, Kensho (which opened in 2019) is all about its patio. The views from the tables mostly encompass the surrounding neighborhood, but take a short walk up the lane before or after dinner to gaze out upon the panoramic breadth of Los Angeles. Decisions, like the decor, are refreshingly minimal, with a dozen or so menu items. Yuzu brightens crab rice, uni toast and smoky charred broccolini; for compact, gratifying meals there is an unagi bento with pickles and a chirashi bowl. Pair them with wine or sake flights. Endure the quirky reservation system (it may appear from the “appointment time” that you have 15 minutes to eat and drink; it isn’t the case) and remember this place, a sleeper gem, when every restaurant in town seems booked.
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Plates of food served at La Cha Cha Cha.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

LA Cha Cha Chá

Downtown L.A. Mexican $$
It’s been four years since Mexico City-based Grupo Palmares began scouting a Los Angeles location for a sister restaurant to its open-air hit Terraza Cha Cha Cha. The group finally found it in a rooftop space on a dense, jutting corner of downtown near East 3rd Street and Traction Avenue. Lena Kohl — an architect who splits her time between L.A. and CDMX, the ideal person to carry out the group’s vision — designed a stunning patio that mixes concrete, rich woods, muted fabrics and textured tiles, completed by a fringe of lush plants to frame the skyline’s tallest buildings. It’s stunning, and the place everyone wants to be right now. You’ll be unwinding with Alejandro Guzman’s easygoing menu of tacos, tostadas and (the early favorite among shared plates) grilled New York strip flanked with vegetables and a ruddy salsa splashed with red wine.
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Gumbo from The Lobster.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The Lobster

Santa Monica Seafood $$$
If California-style gumbo ever becomes a dish of the moment, its roots likely would be traced to the New Orleans-West Coast hybrid that Govind Armstrong conceived for the menu of this long-running Santa Monica seafood institution. The broth is pleasantly thin — more of a cloudy, peppery, double stock than a chocolatey roux. Threads of sweet Dungeness crab lie in wait among shrimp and hunks of Andouille and chicken. A mound of buttered rice perches on the edge of the bowl, its grains slowly crumbling into the stew like cliffs melting back into the Pacific. It’s a gladdening meal; I was happy to be eating Armstrong’s food again after he moved on from Post & Beam a couple of years back. The Lobster is situated near the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier, deep in tourist territory (and trust me, people are back), but the views from the covered deck are prime and Armstrong’s gumbo, with maybe some steamed King crab legs or a lobster salad on the side, creates its own calm sense of place.
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White mole chicken tacos from Macheen at Milpa Grille
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Macheen at Milpa Grille

Boyle Heights Mexican $
Jonathan Perez’s breakfast burritos are momentous. He scrambles eggs until fluffy with Swiss cheese and folds them into a grilled tortilla alongside spiced, seriously crisped Tater Tots and some meat options: birria with chipotle aioli, pork belly with avocado salsa and (my favorite) Filipino longaniza with salsa macha. There is also a pair of vegetarian choices: grilled mushrooms, marinated in al pastor-style spices, or Brussels sprouts frizzled to papery crisps. You eat whatever you choose with a sort of transfixed, loving clamp using both hands. Perez has set up his roving taqueria in an open-ended residency focused on breakfast and lunch at Milpa Grille in Boyle Heights. He channels his imagination into creations like taco de pollo with a mole blanco whose spicy-sweet flavors spin like a color wheel. The tables outside the cafe offer shade while you consider ordering seconds.
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Camarones dinner plate, left; camarones con chintextle, top, and memela at Madre
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Madre West Hollywood

Mexican $$$
Even if you’re only peering into the bar through the picture window, the rows of bottles whose contents glow silvery in the backlight say everything: The collection of mezcal (and other agave spirits) is as prominent here as the breadth of Oaxacan dishes. This is the third local Madre restaurant from Oaxaca native Ivan Vasquez, one of the foremost mezcal evangelists in America. Note that the drink list mentions only a fraction of the available selections; ask a server for a style and a price and the bartenders will happily pick something off-menu and mind-opening. As for food: Go hard on the masa classics. The tlayuda is textbook, the tortilla griddled, folded and sealed with quesillo, surrounded by a platter of chorizo, thin steak and marinated pork. Try a thick, satisfying memela spread with glossy pureed black bean tesajo. And consider visiting on a Saturday or Sunday for the weekend-only lamb barbacoa with its hints of nutty-minty avocado leaf and cinnamon. It pairs ideally with a favorite small-batch mezcal: 5 Sentidos Pechuga de Mole Poblano.
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Mama D's African Kitchen’s Poulet dg.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Mama D’s African Kitchen

Boyle Heights $$
If you’re new to Cameroonian cuisine, start with chef Claudia Wanki’s version of ndole, a plant that grows throughout West Africa and is known by many names. In English it is sometimes called bitter leaf. Pair the ndole with shrimp; the puree of greens has a soft crunch from ground peanuts and zigzags with umami. It comes with nicely caramelized plantains on the side for contrasting sweetness. Dorothy Wanki (the eponymous “Mama D”) founded the restaurant in Washington, D.C.; Claudia opened their first Los Angeles outpost in a Boyle Heights shopping center in late 2020, adding a partitioned dining space in the parking lot. Settle in for ndole, beignet-like puff-puffs, creamy egusi topped with fried fish and the always feel-good jollof rice. Leftovers are deeply satisfying.
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Rip and Dip platter from Mayfield.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Mayfield

Mediterranean $$
Chef Jayro Martinez’s hands are stained a perpetual yellow. The pale hue is the result of handling turmeric, which he uses to flavor his cauliflower shawarma. He massages and marinates heads of cauliflower in his own shawarma mix, made with turmeric, cinnamon, smoked paprika, cumin and a host of other spices. The vegetable is roasted in the oven until charred on the outside and tender; then it’s finished on the grill and served in a pool of pomegranate syrup with tahini. It is the kind of dish that will make you think you could possibly, one day, become a vegetarian. And it is a shining example of the ethos behind owner George Barker’s restaurant, which opened in San Juan Capistrano last summer. This is cuisine inspired by the Levant, bolstered with local ingredients. The cauliflower is non-negotiable. I also recommend starting dinner with a Rip and Dip platter, which showcases five dips: whipped feta with bright, grassy chive oil; muhammara; hummus with za’atar; herby labneh; and baba ganoush. The dips are impossibly smooth and spreadable, and served with thick grilled slabs of pillowy focaccia. Soft wood, cool blues and pinks frame the open dining room, designed for people to comfortably linger. The open façade features bar seats that face the sidewalk. Upstairs, there’s another dining room and a full patio. And yes, before you ask, it is well worth the hour-plus in traffic from L.A.
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Mazza’s Florentine Khachapuri
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Mazza Modern Kitchen

Studio City $$
Caprese burrata dip, hummus, a riff on chicken tikka masala in meatball form, Little Gem salad dotted with cubed feta, kebabs, tiramisu — Mazza’s menu defies any natural order of culinary geography. The owners have roots in Russia and Uzbekistan; knowing that helps narrow ordering decisions. Home in on Uzbek dishes, particularly plov (a lamb and rice pilau that’s rich and substantial enough for dinner) and the mantee — pleated lamb dumplings that land somewhere in size and style between spherical Nepalese momo and deliciously droopy Georgian khinkali. Speaking of Georgian: Molten mozzarella, egg and the unusual additions of spinach and caramelized onions fill the restaurant’s can’t-stop-eating-it take on khachapuri Adjaruli, the canoe-shaped cheese bread. Mazza sits in the center of the second floor of Studio City’s Laurel Promenade Shopping Center. Its dining room is a beautiful convergence of design elements: Midcentury Modern meets Islamic geometric patterns. For the moment I’m peering inside from one of the generously spaced tables set up along the mall’s broad walkways.
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Campechana with shrimp, scallops, octopus, black lime.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Mírame

Beverly Hills Mexican $$$
Mírame in Beverly Hills built streetside pods similar to every tony restaurant in the surrounding blocks: a fence between the road and sidewalk, dividers within a short row of tables, space heaters and retractable umbrellas. That said, its dining room, with its herringbone-patterned floors and pink-earth design tones, is among the most striking in the area. Gaze into it from a small courtyard space that skirts the restaurant’s entrance: Request this outdoor nook if you can; it feels cozier than the sidewalk seating. Joshua Gil’s sculpted ceviches and tacos mirror the glamour of the Golden Triangle, though his flavors express a soulfulness that transcends surface notions of luxury. The campechana is an early signature — shrimp, scallops, octopus, cucumber and hunks of avocado steeped in a briny, citrusy marinade, offset and also magnified by an ice patch of granita infused with black lime. Move on to lamb mulitas, crab albondigas in green garlic-corn broth and a tostada overlaid with hanger steak cured in koji for maximum umami.
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Mama Mina's chile tacos from Nativo
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Nativo

Highland Park Mexican $$
Highland Park has a new community gathering place — a color-saturated maze filled with tiled tables and cushioned wicker chairs, overlaid with Astroturf and covered by bright tarps and big umbrellas. It’s an environment, created by Corissa Hernandez and her husband, Gabriel Paredes (who grew up in the neighborhood), that you want to drift into and stick around for a while. Among the cocktails, start with Sleep Now in the Fire, a controlled blaze of mezcal, tepache, lime, Chamoy, bitters and ginger beer, dreamt up by bartender Grace Peréz. Then home in on the chile relleno, stuffed with just enough panela and mozzarella that it harmonizes with the poblano; use the hill of rice on the side to sop up the sharp, sweet tomato sauce. The rest of the menu (tacos, ceviche and aguachile, enmoladas) is great for sharing, but everyone needs their own chile relleno.
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Nossa’s spring beans plate
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Nossa

Los Feliz $$
John Borghetti ran Trattoria Farfalla in Los Feliz for nearly 30 years before revamping the Hillhurst Avenue space into a restaurant that looks to his Brazilian upbringing for inspiration. South American cuisines are generally underrepresented in Los Angeles, and the food and service at Nossa is full of fresh energy. Yes to puffs of pão de queijo, served hot and meant to be downed immediately; flaky-edged pasteis (fried empanadas, filled with pork and beef or cheese, spinach and kale); and a gentle fish stew fragrant with coconut milk. Chef Simone Bonelli grew up in Modena, Italy, and his background nicely dovetails into the Italian immigrant influences on Brazil’s food culture: He weaves in beautiful spring vegetable salads, a correct and not-too-saucy tagliatelle Bolognese and an unexpected, wholly winning chicken lasagna.
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A pan-fried chicken dish with cultured brown butter and lemon, topped with creamy, spicy vodka sauce and parmesan; and left, hand-made Raschiatelli with spicy pork sparerib ragu, pecorino fonduta, and breadcrumbs; from Ospi
(Silvia Razgova / For the Times)

Ospi

Venice Italian $$
The food at Jackson Kalb and Melissa Saka’s Italian restaurant is straightforwardly delicious and fun. I note the fun because when you order the crispy provolone — you must order the crispy provolone — the cheese pull it prompts will encourage gasps, bouts of laughter, many photos and most likely an Instagram video. The cheese oozes out of its crisp shell. You dunk the giant-much-better-version-of-a-mozzarella-stick into a ramekin of vodka sauce, and your evening is off to a promising start. The pastas are made in-house and excellent, unsurprising for Kalb, who made a name for himself serving pasta at Jame Enoteca in El Segundo. The raschiatelli, shaped like split snap peas and coated in a spicy pork sparerib ragù, is a standout. The butter chicken ordered Parm style (under a blanket of melted cheese with vodka sauce), is another dish that will have everyone at the table pulling out their phones. It is a superb take on chicken Parm with a cutlet of chicken breaded and fried in butter. The restaurant’s location, on a corner near the Venice boardwalk, offers ample people-watching.
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Asparagus, Coq Au Vin, beet salad, and a charcuterie board at Perle.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Perle

Pasadena French $$
I routinely refer to Perle as my favorite restaurant in Pasadena. Opened in the middle of the pandemic last summer, Pauline and Dean Yasharian’s French-inspired bistro has had anything but the traditional opening trajectory. But it’s managed to become a neighborhood mainstay in a short period of time. It’s easy to feel something close to normalcy nibbling on the charcuterie board, which rivals the one at the late Church & State. The steak tartare, French onion soup and frisee Lyonnaise are likely better than any frame of reference you’ve established for each dish. And the tarte tatin is one of the best around (we featured it recently in our “What We’re Into” video series). General manager Roderick Daniels runs a tight, thoughtful wine program that will bolster whatever you’re having for dinner. The small patio is located in what used to be the right lane of traffic on a portion of Union Street in Old Pasadena, now blocked off by concrete barricades. The cars whiz by, and if you face south, your view is likely a busy parking structure. But sitting under the string lights, with a splash of Sauternes in your glass and a quickly disappearing tarte tatin before you, you might as well be in a magical alternate universe — one close to something like the before times.
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Black sesame vichyssoise with pickled green figs, fermented buddha's hands, rambutan, pineapple sage, coriander flowers, rose geraniums, topped with ume-shiso coral; a Phenakite dish.
(Silvia Razgova / For the Times)

Phenakite

$$$$
Phenakite is a new project by one of the most beloved food-industry figures in Los Angeles: Minh Phan, best known as the chef and owner of Porridge & Puffs. While her Historic Filipinotown flagship remains temporarily closed, Phan and her team are pouring their artistry into a weekend residency at Second Home, a Hollywood workshare space set among dense vegetation (the mod building was designed by pioneering L.A. architect Paul R. Williams). Within a 10-course tasting menu, Phan conveys the full measure of her gifts as a chef. To list the number of ingredients in the garnishes of her black sesame vichyssoise or her clever, ever-changing riff on surf and turf (recently, dilled crab cakes and a flawless lardon-filled mochi) would make your eyes blur. If you’ve ever had one of her porridges flavored with herbs, pickles and savory jams, you know just to trust and enjoy. Yes, there is porridge at Phenakite — a delicious variation that involves abalone — though the real heart of the evening is the moment when Phan comes to the table and sets up a swordfish course for each guest. Fig leaves charred with a blowtorch come into play but what really matters is her presence. Her eyes crinkle at the corners while she chats; you know she is smiling behind her mask. You feel connection, and you remember that restaurants are about so much more than eating. And maybe, like me, you relax and feel hopeful in a way you haven’t for a good long while.
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Shrimp ceviche tostada
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Playita Mariscos

Silver Lake Mexican $
If you enjoy tacos (if you’re not a zombie, and maybe if you are), you’ve probably tried Guisados, the Boyle Heights institution now with multiple locations, that specializes in fresh corn tortillas and braises. The De La Torre family behind the business recently opened Playita Mariscos, a sunny, order-at-the-counter / grab-a-seat-outside / eat-off-of-red-plastic-trays-like-the-ones-you-used-in-high-school operation serving a seafood-centric menu of tacos, campechanas and ceviche. The ceviche camarones involves a heap of chopped shrimp cooked and moistened with lime juice. It’s tossed with diced tomato and red onion, seasoned with cilantro and piled onto a golden corn tortilla. Each order gets a quarter avocado fan and a wedge of lime. Add a little, or a lot, of Tapatio from the provided packets until you reach your optimum level of heat and zing. The crispy fish tacos are just as compelling. The sizable pieces of white fish are dunked in beer batter and fried until the coating shatters and the fish is just cooked through. I could eat an entire plate without adornment, but the flour tortillas and salsa roja are excellent too. It is the kind of food that will have you longing for an afternoon on a beach in Ensenada. Silver Lake isn’t nearly as beautiful but, with a tray full of good fish tacos, it will do.
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Three cheese ravioli with ham and peas from Poppy & Seed in Anaheim.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Poppy & Seed

Anaheim American $$
Michael Reed makes highly craveable food. Maybe you’ve tried his fried chicken and waffles at Poppy + Rose, the restaurant he and his wife, Kwini, run in downtown Los Angeles. He’s also spent time cooking at Osteria Mozza and has helmed the kitchens at Viviane, the Wilshire restaurant and the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood. The couple’s newest venture, Poppy & Seed, is part of the Anaheim Packing District, located along the outskirts of the food hall’s outdoor dining space on Anaheim Boulevard. The patio is the epitome of springtime, with lush plants, garden boxes and strong greenhouse vibes. Here, Reed is making food you will think about on the drive home. How did he get the coating on the fried, stuffed squash blossoms so light and crisp? I could have eaten an entire bowl of them. How was the aged cheddar cheese dip so smooth? The accompanying potato chips reminded me of the ones M.F.K. Fisher waxed on about in “The Gastronomical Me.” Their irregularity was perfection. Why doesn’t everyone add shards of crisp chicken skin to their fried Brussels sprouts? The rye crepes and fragments of honeycomb served alongside the smoked duck with Asian pear were wonderful. Could I find similar rye crepes in L.A.? And most important, how soon can I return?
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A box containing the meal Banh Swimming Pig from Xeo Boys at Rodeo 39 Public Market
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Rodeo 39 Public Market

$
The following is your plan for an afternoon food crawl. Drive to the Rodeo 39 Public Market in Stanton, a 41,000-square-foot food wonderland that opened in October. The indoor/outdoor space boasts two patio seating areas, a tattoo shop and a vintage arcade. Start at Kra Z Kai’s BBQ, the second outpost of the Laotian-style barbecue restaurant in Corona. The focus is grilled meats — the kind you’ll find street vendors pushing in Luang Prabang. Order the crispy-edged beef short ribs, marinated in oyster sauce for two days before they hit the grill, and the house sausage, roughly ground pork cigars scented with lemongrass. Eat them both with sticky rice. Next, make your way over to Banh Xeo Boys for some savory Vietnamese crepes. The rice flour pancakes are as thin and delicate as lace and tinged yellow with turmeric. The tire-size crepes are folded over your choice of filling (go for the shrimp and pork belly) and come with a garden’s worth of fresh herbs, julienned pickled daikon and carrot, and a cup of nuoc mam for dipping. Then walk to Bestea for some boba milk tea and a box of popcorn chicken dusted in tom yum goong seasoning (think sugar, lemongrass and chile). Finish with a scoop of black sesame soy milk ice cream from Fika Fika Creamery for dessert. Make the drive back to Los Angeles feeling deliriously happy and full.
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Calzone from Ronan.
(Lauren Lee / Los Angeles Times)

Ronan

Fairfax $$
The first thing I’ll always recommend at Ronan is “the Philippe,” Daniel Cutler’s only-in-L.A. calzone that channels Philippe’s French dip with its filling of rare roast beef and sides of jus and hot mustard. It’s the most magnificently baroque idea that comes out of his kitchen, though imagination is evident in nearly every dish. To call the business he runs with his wife, Caitlin Cutler, a “small plates and pizza restaurant” doesn’t quite convey its spirit. The pies — crowned with California combinations like squash blossoms, fennel pollen, pecorino, anchovy and cream (together the ingredients rustle soothingly on the taste buds) — are excellent, and you likely want the bone-in pork chop after sharing a pizza and a lemony arugula salad with dates and mint. Handsome wood tables fill the long, off-the-street patio.
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Ruam Mitr's shrimp Khao Soi: egg noodles in a rich Northern Thai yellow curry, topped with crispy noodles.
(Silvia Razgova / For the Times)

Ruam Mitr Thai

Fairfax Thai $
Kwanklao Disbanchong learned how to cook at her family’s 40-year-old canteen restaurant inside a high school in Bangkok, Thailand. She has worked at multiple Thai restaurants in Los Angeles, including Bulan Thai Vegetarian Kitchen in Silver Lake, where she was a delivery driver. At another restaurant in Santa Monica, she bussed tables. When the Bulan Thai location on Melrose Avenue became available in 2017, Disbanchong took over the space and opened Ruam Mitr. Located outside of the city’s Thai Town proper, Ruam Mitr doesn’t get as much recognition as some of the better-known Thai restaurants around town, but it should. Disbanchong is cooking recipes she learned from her grandmother in Thailand, and many she developed herself, like her take on pla rad prik, or fried fish with chile sauce. She batters and then fries a filet of sole in a thick batter until it’s crisp and golden, then buries the fish in a sweet and spicy chile sauce made with dried chiles, palm sugar and mushroom sauce. And no dinner on the front patio would be complete without an order of chicken wings. Disbanchong makes five varieties because, she says, “People should have a choice.” The garlic wings are lacquered in a sticky garlic sauce peppered with fresh garlic. And the larb wings mimic the ebb and flow of the spice in the actual dish, seasoned with rice powder, chile and lime.
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Gyukotsu from Saikai Ramen Bar
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Saikai Ramen Bar

Japanese $
Jimin Kim boils 125 pounds of pork bones for a minimum of 24 hours to make a batch of the shoyu tonkotsu broth at Saikai Ramen Bar, his Koreatown restaurant. To season the broth, he uses his own shoyu tare, which he marinates for at least two days. The bowl is garnished with sliced pork belly chashu (simmered for hours in a stock suffused with ginger and garlic), strands of bamboo shoots cooked in soy and mirin, diced woodear mushrooms, green onion and perilla seeds. (“No shortcuts, he starts and finishes the broth himself,” co-owner Sandy Hong recently shared in an email.) The milky broth is redolent with the deep tang of pork but beguiling in its lightness and subtlety. But where Saikai really excels is the gyukotsu. Hong and Kim claim to be the only L.A. ramen shop offering this style of broth, a specialty of the Tottori region in Japan. And they only serve 20 bowls a day. Kim boils 40 pounds of beef bones for at least 36 hours to make the broth. It takes an additional 72 hours to sous vide the short ribs he serves with it. It’s an impossibly unctuous soup, made even richer by the short rib and the optional 1 ounce of A5 Miyazaki Wagyu rib-eye cap you can add to your bowl for another $10. It’s finished with a mirepoix oil, green onions, shiitake mushrooms seasoned with sesame oil, black pepper and toasted threads of arbol chile. I found myself unconsciously ignoring the thin, chewy noodles, navigating my spoon around the various toppings in the bowl, trying to collect every last drop of the broth.
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Grilled prawns and fried baby artichokes from Saso.
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Saso

Pasadena Spanish $$
Seafood, in all forms, is the star at Saso, whose name is a nod to the Basque word “itsaso,” meaning ocean. Chefs Dominique Crisp, Dolly Webster and Timothy Garcia make good use of the restaurant’s Josper charcoal oven. Whole, plump prawns are grilled with sprigs of rosemary until just curled and firm. Alaskan mussels bloom in the oven, served in a broth glutted with charred leeks and fennel and disks of smoky chistorra sausage. The calimero, wonderful deviled eggs brimming with filling, are crowned with poached shrimp and a smoked salmon aioli. The best way to experience the restaurant is on the patio, under twinkling lights in the courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse, with multiple pintxos and plenty of wine or a cocktail (the Mission Shandy, with gin, Basque cider and seasonal fresh fruit, is a favorite). You can even order the Esperientzia, which includes all 10 pintxos.
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Whole lobster from Sea Harbour.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Sea Harbour Seafood

Rosemead Chinese $$
There are people who go to Sea Harbour Seafood in Rosemead to baller out on crystal crab and sun-dried South African abalone. My family goes for the dim sum. It’s easy to sit down at one of the large round tables (now on the front patio or inside) and order your favorites, without a single glance at the menu. Two orders of shumai (so no one bickers), egg tofu in abalone sauce (silky nuggets of tofu in a rich gravy), shrimp dumplings (the skin translucent and perfectly chewy), baked BBQ pork buns and steamed rice noodles wrapped around minced pork. If my grandmother is so inclined (she has the final say on the order), we get a lobster, which arrives under a heap of fried garlic cooked until it tastes like candy. But it wasn’t until recently that a friend ordered the French-style pork buns instead of the regular. What a novice, I thought. He clearly doesn’t know the drill. The French-style buns are similar to the regular, with a filling of sweet char siu. But the bun is capped with a crackly golden crown of sugar topping that gilds the bao with extra sweetness and a delicate crunch. From now on — the French-style buns!
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Red snapper with yuzu, rocoto paste and pink peppercorn at Sushi Note.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Sushi Note

Sherman Oaks Japanese $$$
Few of our finest sushi bars have yet to reopen their indoor counter seating. Until we’re again eating nigiri from chefs just seconds after they’ve finished molding fish with rice, there’s the remarkably lovely streetside scape that Sushi Note has created. Miles Davis recordings launch a sort of sonic force field around the tables outside the restaurant’s façade, while servers hustle to deliver plates of chef Kiminobu Saito’s citrus-buzzed sashimi and pure, balanced sushi. Sushi Note sits across the street from Augustine wine bar, and Sushi Note’s tightly edited and always interesting beverage program is no coincidence; serious oenophile David Gibbs co-owns both places.
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Mulita filled with carne asada at Tacos El Viejon
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Tacos El Viejon

East Los Angeles Mexican $
For several years Alex Velazquez and his father, Rey, have run a Tijuana-style taco stand in East Los Angeles, carving marinated pork from the trompo (including a nip of the golden crown of pineapple that sits atop the spit) into graceful, guacamole-smeared tacos. In January the family opened theirfirst sit-down restaurant in a building a few blocks up from the site of their stand on Cesar Chavez Avenue. Tacos al pastor remain the draw, but the menu broadens to include breakfast (chilaquiles, excellent huevos divorciados, fully loaded breakfast burritos) and satisfying taco variations. Try the vampiro with cecina (thin strips of beef); its layer of cheese half oozes, half crackles. Tacos El Viejon packages meals for takeout, offers inside seating and has one lone table for outside dining — but that’s enough to count so grab it.
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A fish katsu sandwich with slaw and bonito flakes from Yess Aquatic.
(Silvia Razgova / For the Times)

Yess Aquatic

Downtown L.A. Japanese American $
After Junya Yamasaki closed his heralded London restaurant Koya in 2015, he returned to his native Japan for a few years of refocusing. He had been quietly working toward opening a restaurant and wine bar in downtown Los Angeles when (you guessed it) his plans were mired in the pandemic. In the interim he’s running a traffic-cone-orange food truck called Yess Aquatic. The pared-down menu concentrates on seafood fished from local waters; Yamasaki’s Instagram account shows pictures of him in a wetsuit, holding up spiny lobsters or a just-caught sea bream off the shores of Santa Cruz. He transforms them into precise, austere sashimi salads; sandwiches full of textures and contrasts that frame the freshness of battered fish or bouncy prawns; and springtime specials like fried salt-and-pepper squid spangled with English peas, mint leaves and scallions. The truck parks on Mateo Street between 7th and Industrial streets, beside a small patio shaded by a building with a mural that reads “There is always hope.”
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