Even before moving to Los Angeles in December, when Patricia Escárcega and I joined The Times as co-restaurant critics, I was convinced this was the most dynamic and delicious food city in America. Writing weekly restaurant reviews for The Times has given that grand notion an on-the-ground realness — community by community, meal by meal.
Looking over my first six months of reviews, these seven restaurants stood out as an ensemble that typifies the scope and energy of Los Angeles dining right now. The roundup includes a food truck in operation since 2013; it serves a carnitas taco that’s become one of L.A.’s defining dishes. Most of these, though, are newcomers: They’ve only recently introduced (for starters) singular takes on sublime oxtails, herbaceous northern Thai stews and Taiwanese-style sandwiches, but their presence in the city already feels indispensable.
Porridge + Puffs
The restaurant’s twee-sounding name belies the intricacies of Minh Phan’s cooking. “Porridge” is shorthand for Phan’s intricate, soothing compositions: Many begin with an aromatic base using rice from Central California’s Koda Farms. Poultry and Mushrooms, one staple, layers chicken, ground turkey spiked with salty-sweet soy sauce, shiitakes, pickled celery, frizzled shallots and a small hill of chopped green onions: Eating it is like listening to the kind of symphony that compels you to lean forward and catch the quiet nuances. Phan’s imagination and devotion to the seasons drive the short, ever-changing menu. Dinner hours are limited; think of the historic Filipinotown restaurant foremost as a calming destination for lunch and Sunday brunch.
2801 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 908-5313, porridgeandpuffs.com
On the surface, Keith Corbin’s cooking — which he describes as “California soul food” — exalts the foods of the American South: oxtails over rice, fried chicken, smothered steak, macaroni and cheese. Corbin, a native of Watts, grew up on these dishes. But his intent is also to lighten and refresh a lexicon that, as he sees it, moved away from its agrarian roots and suffers from a stigma of being unhealthy. For example, he pulls back on dairy and sugar for his take on candied yams (enriching them with almond milk and a gloss of browned butter) without sacrificing enjoyment. He seasons collard greens with vinegar, chile flakes and smoked oil and bundles them in a steamed collard leaf creased like an envelope. Miso and soy sauce add subtle umami to his oxtails, the West Adams restaurant’s finest dish. For sheer indulgence, pair the fried chicken with cornmeal pancakes at brunch.
5359 West Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 571-4999, altaadams.com
Carnitas El Momo
Anyone who lives in Los Angeles and partakes of pig should know the splendor of the El Momo food truck’s taco mixta at least once. The masterpiece combines four cuts of the pork that the Acosta family braises for hours in copper cauldrons. The family suggests trying at least one taco dressed with only pickled vegetables — the style preferred in Salamanca, Mexico, where family patriarch Romulo “Momo” Acosta learned the art of exceptional carnitas. One worthy variation: a mulita, with the carnitas sandwiched between two tortillas and sealed with queso blanco that oozes and seizes on the griddle. The truck most frequently parks in Boyle Heights; check El Momo’s Instagram account for the day’s location.
2411 Fairmount St, Los Angeles, (323) 627-8540, instagram.com/carnitaselmomo
Northern Thai Food Club
“Nancy” Amphai Dunne cooks the dishes of her native Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province. Meet her at the steam table, the physical and spiritual center of her tiny Thai Town restaurant, to best decide the direction of your meal. She’s constantly shuffling ruddy, brothy stews animated by herbs and brimming with hunks of pork or chicken; look for dishes like gaeng hung lay (sometimes also phonetically spelled kaeng hang le), a pork belly curry fragrant with tamarind and ginger whose flavors never stay still. Dunne’s recipe for sai ua, Chiang Rai’s ubiquitous pork sausage, is also remarkable.
5301 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 474-7212.
Vivian Ku’s Highland Park charmer — the follow-up to her debut, Silver Lake’s booming Pine & Crane — is the 2019 paradigm of a terrific neighborhood restaurant. A general air of contentment lingers in the dining room, inviting with its familiar, edited scruff of brick walls and knotty wood panels. Joy’s Taiwanese menu leans light and satisfying: cold salads like garlicky wood-ear mushrooms and soy-braised peanuts, shrimp wontons, lulling in chicken and pork stock, sandwiches built with plush sesame scallion bread, Ku’s take on lu rou fan, a dish of gently spiced pork sauce over rice. The straightforward pleasures carry right through to dessert: Order the mochi rolled in crushed peanut and black sesame, a Hakka specialty.
5100 York Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 999-7642, joyonyork.com
“String hoppers,” thin rice flour noodles steamed into flat, lacy nests, is an Anglicized name for a dish known in Sri Lankan dialects as idiyappam. Ordering a plate of them vegetarian-style brings sides of kiri hodi, a golden spiced coconut milk gravy; pol sambol, a fluffy coconut condiment dyed peachy orange from red chiles; mallum, a rotating vegetable, perhaps finely chopped kale with coconut, onion and lemon; and coconut chutney dusky with chile powder. It’s my favorite introduction to the Sri Lankan cooking of Niza Hashim, who runs the Tarzana restaurant with her husband, Lalith Rodrigo. Also try the crepe-like hoppers, or appam, made of a yeasted rice flour and coconut milk batter, paired with the smoky and pleasantly sour fish curry.
19662 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 609-7683, facebook.com/Apey-Kade-146500275463867/
What has been my single most exhilarating dining experience since moving to Los Angeles? The answer is easy: Brandon Hayato Go’s seven-seat marvel in the Row DTLA complex. For one seating five nights a week, Go stands at the center of the restaurant’s dining counter, wielding chopsticks and knives to compose dishes of profound beauty. He pulls inspiration from the canonical structure of kaiseki: an emphasis on extreme seasonality, a show of different techniques (fried, simmered, grilled and so on), the use of ceramics that harmonize with the shapes and textures of the food. There will be soup as meditation; there will be enough fish and rice as a savory finale to leave you wholly sated; there will be surprises. On Fridays and Saturdays only, Go also assembles exquisite lunchtime bento boxes. Reservations for dinner and the bentos go live a month in advance; booking is a competitive sport but entirely worth the effort.
1320 E. 7th St, Suite 126, Los Angeles, (213) 395-0607, hayatorestaurant.com