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Surviving the pandemic with takeout feasts that make you feel at home

Illustration of a van that reads "food to you!" on its side.
It’s been an uncommonly difficult year in many ways, but Los Angeles teems with talent and ideas, and our city’s dynamic food culture remains.
(Megan Badilla / For The Times)

[It’s here: The Los Angeles Times’ 101 restaurants, dishes, people and ideas that define how we eat in 2020.]

Recently, I spent the better part of a Saturday morning in the front yard of Alan Cruz’s City Terrace home eating barbecue, a luxurious spread that included baby back ribs glazed with tamarindo sauce; pork belly burnt ends pungent with chile and garlic; and cochinita pibil pulled pork sweltering in its citrus-tinged juices.

A’s Barbecue, the smoke-meat stand that Cruz operates from his childhood home, merges the classic Mexican flavors of his youth with his reverence for central Texas smoked-meat traditions, a combination that yields the kind of lush, boldly sauced cooking that makes you glad to be alive.

Sitting in thin sunlight in Cruz’s driveway, on a half-empty picnic bench, I marveled over the chile-stained pulled pork and snuck forkfuls of creamy mac ’n’ cheese streaked with smoky green chile under my face mask. Next door, a woman in her 70s or 80s ironed in full view of the neighborhood, her willowy body framed by the open doorway of her laundry room. Nearby, someone had a radio tuned to one of the local Spanish-language stations. The staticky music drifted across the yard and washed over me as forcefully as the scent of the barbecued beef ribs roasting nearby, tiny starbursts of nostalgia detonating in my brain. The scene was utterly reminiscent of my childhood, but it was also firmly grounded in modern-day City Terrace, where a new generation of chefs, Cruz included, is cooking dishes that bridge past with the present.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about A’s Barbecue lately, because I arrived there in what felt like a half-broken state — a family member had passed away unexpectedly, we were still in the throes of one of the most stressful elections in recent memory, and my skin had responded to the cocktail of stress and insomnia by breaking into an angry, painful rash. Still, I left A’s Barbecue feeling more energized and hopeful (and, yes, stuffed) than I had in months.

A platter of cochinita pibil-style pulled pork and other smoked meats from A's BBQ.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Many of us have survived the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic — the isolation and the economic instability, the sense of a world increasingly defined by loss and uncertainty — with takeout feasts that have grounded us in time and place. Life under lockdown is made infinitely more bearable when you have the cheese-smothered short ribs from Sun Nong Dan in your reach; or dumplings and roiling hot pots from Sichuan Impression; or the comforts of pastrami and mini-knishes from Brent’s Deli, all of which became only more essential as the quarantine stretched on.

In June, as new cases of the novel coronavirus soared in California, my husband and I celebrated our daughter Sofía’s first birthday with pandemic pod cohorts, the sober get-together buoyed by a pound of blistering-hot carne asada, bundles of chivichangas and containers filled with avocado and chile arból salsa from Sonoratown — joyful cooking vibrating with the memory of a thousand backyard family barbecues, and reminding me of something novelist Barry Hannah wrote once: “When you eat well you are eating memory.”

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It’s been an uncommonly difficult year in many ways; with flip-switch efficiency, the coronavirus shutdown put thousands of California restaurant workers out of work overnight and threatened even the sturdiest-seeming million-dollar investments. While independent restaurants across the country fought for federal aid to stay solvent, the industry continued to grapple with serious issues related to worker abuse, exploitation and safety, among others — leading many, me included, to wonder if a restaurant economy premised on brutal hierarchies and underpaid workers is worth saving at all.

Places like A’s Barbecue remind me that the city teems with talent and ideas. The pandemic has not robbed us of the dynamic food culture that is not only a major part of the economic fabric of Los Angeles but also embedded into the cultural life and soul of the city.

This is still a city where a young chef can look to both Texas Hill Country and Mexico’s Yucatán and translate the moods and flavors of both into something distinctly of Los Angeles.

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For better or worse, Los Angeles is a place that rewards audacity; this is a part of the world, journalist Marc Reisner once wrote, “achieved on the pretension that natural obstacles do not exist.” (Surviving the post-COVID world will demand it.)

Resilience, of course, is the underlying theme to this year’s 101 list. But the 101 also is intended to be used as a living road map, so that even on the darkest days, you can find a corner of Los Angeles that feels like home.


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