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It’s the end of 2021, and though the restaurant industry continues to struggle under the challenges of the pandemic, many of us still harbor that undeniable desire to get together with loved ones around a table to eat some food. The feeling grows acute around the exhausting pace of the holiday season, so we asked Times Food staff and friends a simple question: Where do you take out-of-town guests to eat when you want to show them your L.A.? These choices don’t have to be your “best” — we’ve got the 101 list for that! — but rather the intimate, the convenient, the nostalgic or the most exciting culinary destinations that you keep close in the pocket for that perfect outing.
Breakfast at Pann’s Diner: To be truly civilized, you should never live more than 15 minutes from a counter where you can roll up and order coffee, eggs, hash browns and pancakes to start a morning. I grew up going to coffee shops with my dad to have classic American breakfasts, like it was a big deal. Here in L.A., I love reliving that sensation whenever I can, and as close to my front door as possible. Whenever my parents or siblings visit, I’m always available to take them to Pann’s, right at the peak of Ladera Heights. The 1950s Googie coffee shop, with its dramatic triangular roofline and classic interior, is a neighborhood gem in a soul-food-centric landscape, so wings or chicken and waffles are key. Lines can be long on weekends, but any old midweek day you can scoot into a round barstool at the counter and watch the expert cooks on the griddle slice, toss and fry their magic. Coffee is hot and up-front, and if you’re in a less rushed mood, a bottle of Stanford Brut champagne for $18.95 on ice, while you pack in those hash browns, is not a bad idea. 6710 La Tijera Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 776-3770, panns.com
Dinner at Delicious Pizza: West Adams Boulevard between Crenshaw and La Cienega has in the last year or two gentrified so aggressively, every time I drive along it the strip seems to look totally different and newer. I’m not sure how much of this kind of extreme shifting the surrounding neighborhood can take, but I do know that there are change agents with agreeable flavor on this corridor. An early player is Delicious Pizza, the pizza-slanging outfit of, of all things, the record label Delicious Vinyl. When nights get colder and longer, I like parking in the back, taking a high bar table and starting off with a fizzy glass of the excellent house sangria. Everything here is good: I am devoted to the standard pepperoni pie, or sometimes splurge with the Slaughtahouse, featuring soppressata, thick shards of bacon and a house-made sausage, or the Varry White, which comes with mozzarella, fontina, ricotta, Parmesan and pecorino romano. In addition to the sangria — OK, usually it’s a pitcher — I always order the mushroom pesto pasta and the Caesar salad, topped with two extra-large anchovies. There’s a large outdoor eating area teeming with funky knick-knacks, and the lounging music, as might be expected, is quality hip-hop-based. 5419 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 424-3014, deliciouspizza.com
Drinks at the Cozy Inn: The sign of a good bar, I always say, is not its “mixologist” or interior design. A place tells you it’s special when it’s the sort of social incubator where you can always make a new friend. This has been my experience at the Cozy Inn, in a locals-only pocket of Culver City. This bar reflects the anti-posing true soul of West L.A. Yes, people! The Westside is not the lame caricature that Eastsiders often insist it is! When my friend Memo Torres, a Westside native, first introduced me to this place, I almost breathed a sigh of relief the moment I stepped in. This bar is actually, mercifully chill and diverse. The only hot-headedness happens at the pool tables, the locus of a competitive scene of billiards players. Call me sentimental but I love when bars drape their interiors from floor to ceiling in Christmas lights during the holidays; the Cozy Inn goes all in on this front. For beer lovers, there are no taps, only bottles (which are overpriced, but, hey!), so go for the heavy pours from the well, and be ready to chat with your neighbor. 11155 Washington Place, Culver City
Breakfast at Elite: The sad truth is that I do not like, nor do I eat, breakfast. But I’ll make an exception for dim sum at Elite in Monterey Park, over-ordering with pork shiu mai, crystal shrimp har gow, beef short ribs, mushroom dumplings and steamed BBQ pork buns. Elite, 700 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (626) 282-9998, eliterestaurantchinese.com
Lunch at Killer Noodle, the Lobster or Chichén Itzá: Lunch is my favorite meal. It could be Killer Noodle on Sawtelle. Dare your loved ones who insist they like spicy food to order a level four — or five. Or try the Lobster at the Santa Monica Pier, a good choice for friends who love amusement parks and are old enough to wander free of parents before the check arrives. (The Ferris wheel has been known to tame even the most petulant of children.) Sometimes I take visitors or adult children who sleep until noon to Chichén Itzá near USC, and encourage them to order the ceviche and every taco on the menu. Killer Noodle, 2030 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, (424) 293-0474, killernoodle.com; the Lobster, 1602 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 458-9294, thelobster.com; Chichén Itzá, 3655 S. Grand Ave., C6, Los Angeles, (213) 741-1075, chichenitzarestaurant.com
Economic, lightweight vending equipment that meets health codes is practically impossible to find. Revolution Carts is hoping to change that.
Dinner at Hiko Sushi: Several years ago, when my family was looking for a place to celebrate our son’s birthday, we stumbled into Hiko Sushi, a tiny space in West L.A. where the proprietor stood silently for hours as he prepared each dish. His wife or one of his children spoke softly to us about the parade of plates delivered to our table and reminded us when we should eschew soy sauce. The food was simple and exquisite. We noted a small sign forbidding cellphones and, as we came to understand after a few visits, he meant it. Over the years, there were more celebrations (and a few friends who foolishly ignored the ban and got the boot). After months of takeout during the pandemic, indoor dining returned earlier this year. That’s reason enough to celebrate. Hiko Sushi, 11275 National Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 470-7688, hikosushila.com
Breakfast at Doubting Thomas: My first question to out-of-town guests is always: Where are you staying? We’ve got such a breadth of choice in every corner of L.A. that it’s easier for me to curate by region, but one of my favorite cafes is, I think, worth a morning bite no matter where they’re sleeping. Chef-owner Naomi Peteu (née Shim) bakes artful, hyper-seasonal tarts, cookies and croissants in addition to a globetrotting lineup of dishes that complement espressos featuring the likes of syrup steeped with fresh fig leaves. At Doubting Thomas, her does-it-all cafe in Historic Filipinotown, from the passion fruit pie to the braised-pork-packed breakfast burrito, there’s no wrong way to order. Unless, of course, you’re thinking about skipping the croissants. 2510 W. Temple St., Los Angeles, (323) 350-9869, doubtingthomas.la
Lunch at Slammers at Brain Dead Studios: “Synergy” is one of those grating corporate words, but it’s fully on display at Slammers, one of the most un-corporate-feeling spots along Fairfax. Streetwear brand Brain Dead revitalized the neighborhood’s Silent Movie Theater in 2020 and now screens a killer lineup of non-silent, genre-spanning programming (I practically lived there during its 24-hour horror movie marathon in October). Brain Dead tapped local chef Jesse Furman to launch a gourmet concessions stand and a patio cafe in the process; it’s at Slammers, on that back patio, where you’ll find some of L.A.’s most fun collaborations taking place. Chefs from other restaurants and soon-to-be-restaurants pop up on weekends and at a monthly “food flea market.” Bring your guest here for a bite and a movie, grab a Brain Dead snapback, and be sure to pick up one of the food pantry items too: it sells limited-run and one-off collabs such as head-shaped dried pasta from Jon & Vinny’s and a branded jar of the craveable miso peanut salsa macha from Metztli Taqueria, so your guest can bring home a taste of L.A. 611 N. Fairfax Ave., (323) 917-5053, instagram.com/slammers_la
Afternoon snack crawl in Chinatown: I like to kick things off with a visit to a childhood favorite, the 1938-founded Phoenix Bakery; the Chan family’s generational sweets shop is best known for its strawberry cake, but I’ve always been partial to its red bean- and winter-melon-filled pastries, especially when it’s mooncake season. Grab something sweet to fuel up for a wander through Central Plaza for caffeine at Thank You Coffee, then head across the street to Mandarin Plaza for a bite at Angry Egret Dinette, where chef Wes Avila rotates through an ever-changing menu of tacos, tortas and specials; next door is Steep, which you can duck into for delicate teas and dainty sweets (get the egg tarts) or fuller meals such as braised pork belly over rice. Keep it light, though, because down the street is Hop Woo for a snack of barbecued pork, and the next block over is Katsu Sando’s tempura-fried onigiri, and Wax Paper’s soft-serve. On the next street over is ABC Seafood Restaurant, but what you’re looking for is its takeout-only counter next door for fresh steam trays of inexpensive dim sum. You’ll need cash for ABC as well as the nearby My Dung sandwich shop, which sells refreshing and affordable banh mi served on perfectly pliant baguettes — split one and round the corner to close out the tour at Far East Plaza, home to some of Chinatown’s more storied spots as well as its newest: Kim Chuy for leek cakes, vegan pastry from Baker’s Bench, a vanilla pandan latte from Endorffeine, Lasita for tamarind-tinged shrimp chips and, finally, a peruse in Now Serving — L.A.’s finest cookbook shop — before heading home to nap and rally for dinner.
Martin Draluck’s Hemings and Hercules dinners are for ‘people hungry for history.’
Dinner at Anajak Thai: Like most of my colleagues (and most likely anyone else covering food in this city), I’m regularly asked to name a favorite restaurant in Los Angeles. It’s an impossible task and one I still don’t really have an answer to, but I can say there’s just about nowhere I’m more comfortable and sated than in one very special alleyway in Sherman Oaks. Justin Pichetrungsi’s parents still help keep Anajak Thai running, but the second-generation restaurateur has reshaped it, and over the last two-ish years also has helped reshape how its fans and followers dine: A COVID-era pivot turned the side alleyway into an alfresco dining room lit by strings of bulb lights and tiny table lamps, a setting that’s now home to a tasting menu and one of my favorite weekly food events. The regular menu of Thai favorites always does the trick, but bring your friends on Thai Taco Tuesday for genre-dissolving dishes and chef collabs that spotlight and borrow from all corners of the globe; the energy is humming, the playlist is on point, the natural wine is flowing and when I’m there, there’s nowhere else I want to be. It’s a surefire way to give your visitors a taste of how L.A. is eating, here and now. 14704 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 501-4201, anajakthai.com
Drinks and late night at Walt’s and Angel’s Tijuana Tacos: As if gloriously lifted from a Midwestern suburb in 1979 and dropped into Eagle Rock in 2018, Walt’s Bar is vintage-pinball heaven, a land of hot dogs, $3 Coors, flashing pinball cabinets, hot German pretzels with house-made beer cheese, and $4 Hamm’s tallboys. But it’s also home to natural wine and a slew of local craft beers for that perfect balance of high-low. The vibe is unpretentious and chill, so bring your friends to Walt’s for a round of drinks and pinball and take a seat on the back patio, which is where you’ll find Jamie’s: a snack shack that hosts some of the city’s most fun pop-ups. If there’s no one at the shack or you’re not feeling bar snacks, less than a mile down Eagle Rock Boulevard Angel’s Tijuana Tacos serves some of the best TJ-style tacos in town, practically spilling with salsa de aguacate. Round up your crew, brave the line for Angel’s (don’t fret, it moves quickly), then load up on al pastor sliced from the trompo. Walt’s, 4680 Eagle Rock Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 739-6767, instagram.com/waltsbar; Angel’s Tijuana Tacos, 4211 Eagle Rock Blvd., instagram.com/angelstijuanatacos
Extreme late night at the Prince: The Prince is where great nights usually end, but it’s also where your nightcap plans can go awry. It’s easy for a simple one-drink itinerary to become three or four with a plate of Korean fried chicken and a side of kimchi pancake, but really, who wouldn’t be down for cocktails and tteokbokki until the bar kicks you out at 2 a.m.? (No friends of mine.) In addition to serving as the setting for a number of films and TV shows — “Chinatown,” “Mad Men” and “New Girl” among them — this 1920s-built K-town bar can hold its own as more than a pretty face; stroll in past the full sets of armor and the stained-glass windows, settle in among the deep red leather booths, hit the buzzer next to your seat to summon your server, then put in an order for a few daiquiris and some of the best late-night Korean food you’ll find in a neighborhood flush with the stuff. 3198 W. 7th St., Los Angeles, (213) 389-1586, instagram.com/theprincela
Dumplings in the SGV: Regardless of where you are staying, how long it will take you to get to this side of town or any dietary restrictions, I am taking you to the San Gabriel Valley and we are going on a dumpling crawl. This is the most requested activity from both friends who live in Los Angeles and those from out of town. Everything on this list was introduced to me by my Chinese grandmother, and this crawl is my favorite way to show off and experience the San Gabriel Valley. We’ll start at Hui Tou Xiang for hui tou, pan-fried meat blintzes filled with juicy pork or beef with house-made chile oil. Then we’re off to Long Xing Ji Juicy Dumpling for sweet xiao long bao (the sweet refers to a minimal amount of sugar added to enhance the pork flavor). We’ll also order the giant jiggly crab and pork soup dumplings that you pierce with a straw. Next, I’ll introduce you to proper dumpling lace at PP Pop, home to some of the best pan-fried dumplings around. An order of shrimp and leek dumplings comes inverted on the plate, one large disk connected by a crunchy network of starch and oil. It’s at this point that I suggest a grapefruit tea from Sunright Tea Studios to cleanse the palate and prepare for the next round. Then we’re off to Noodle Harmony for some Sichuan-style wontons in chile oil to get your head tingling. And to finish, a visit to Kang Kang food court for sheng jian bao. The bottoms are crisp, the tops fluffy and the insides full of molten hot pork and soup. I’ll even teach you how to avoid the dumpling squirt and not blind the person across from you. Hui Tou Xiang, 704 W. Las Tunas Drive, Suite #5, San Gabriel; Long Xing Ji Juicy Dumpling, 140 W. Valley Blvd., #211, San Gabriel; PP Pop, 127 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; Sunright Tea Studios, 141 N. Atlanta Blvd., #107, Monterey Park; Noodle Harmony, 735 W. Garvey, Monterey Park; Kang Kang food court, 27 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra
An Italian sub for lunch: I love taking people to Bay Cities Italian deli for the sandwiches and its proximity to the beach. Everyone loves the Godmother (as do I), but I suggest we get a Godmother and a tuna and go halfsies. Both come on crackly filone bread baked on-site. The Godmother is your classic Italian sub with a medley of deli meat (salami, mortadella, ham, prosciutto and capicola) spruced up with hot peppers and the best Italian dressing. The tuna offers a textural respite from all the sliced meat. It may seem an odd pairing, but I’m your guide, and you’ll have to trust me. Grab a couple of bags of chips and a drink and we’re off to enjoy our sandwiches with a view of the Pacific Ocean. If you’re staying with me in Pasadena, we’ll have a different sort of sandwich adventure with a trip to Roma Market & Deli. Proprietor Rosario Mazzeo has been making his subs since 1975. Jonathan Gold used to refer to Mazzeo’s sandwiches simply as “the sandwich.” It always comes as is, wrapped in pink deli paper, with no substitutions: soppressata, mortadella, capicola and provolone on a crusty roll drizzled with olive oil. I could take you to a park nearby to eat it, but we’ll most likely tear into it in the parking lot. Bay Cities, 1517 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, order.bcdeli.com; Roma Deli, 918 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 797-7748
Chilaquiles are a perfect comfort food. Columnist Steve Lopez has spent decades trying to re-create the version he grew up with in Northern California.
Grand Central Market: Where else can you take someone for a bit of history (the market opened in 1917) and a taste of some of the chefs and restaurants that make this city truly special? There’s an outpost of Donut Man, the Glendora doughnut shop best known for its glazed doughnuts bursting with fresh fruit. There’s Fat and Flour, Nicole Rucker’s pie shop (don’t miss the key lime pie!). For more pie, stop by Sari Sari Store, Walter and Margarita Manzke’s Filipino food stall, for a slice of buko pie (coconut filling atop flaky, buttery crust). There’s cheese, more cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches and natural wine at the DTLA Cheese stall. Kwang Uh and Mina Park of Baroo are offering their take on doshirak with banchan, short ribs and more at the Shiku stall. Across the way is Lucky Bird fried chicken. And Tacos Tumbras a Tomas has been serving excellent Michoacán-style carnitas for more than 50 years. There’s so much more, but this is a good place to start. 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, grandcentralmarket.com
Drinks at the Eataly rooftop’s Terra: Some people follow their favorite bands or artists, making pilgrimages to concerts and exhibits. I follow my favorite bartender. If Vincenzo Marianella is behind the bar somewhere, I’m making a visit. He’s worked at Providence and the Doheny and ran the late Copa d’Oro in Santa Monica. His drinks can be found on the menus at Love & Salt and Forma in Venice. If you ever have him in front of you, tell him your likes and dislikes, and this libation wizard will whip up a bespoke cocktail so perfectly balanced and tailor-made that you’ll feel like the most special imbiber in the world. For the next few months, you can find him at Terra, the rooftop restaurant at Eataly, inside Westfield Century City. Yes, I’m going to take you to a Westfield mall for a proper cocktail. 10250 Santa Monica Boulevard, Roof, Los Angeles, eataly.com
Dinner at Tam O’Shanter: If the holidays are near and friends are in town, I gravitate toward the Tam O’Shanter in Atwater for many reasons, most connected to scene rather than cuisine. The auld Scottish kitsch factor (L.A. needs more restaurants inspired by Robert Burns poems). The long local history dating to 1922. The old-school Atwater Wedge salad and the Tam Burger with the 6-ounce Angus beef patty. The Disney connection (Walt, who lived nearby, was a regular in the ’20s). The memory of gathering here with fellow day-care families to hear the Ploughboys sing rowdy folk tunes when our daughter was little. As for the holidays, in December the restaurant has carolers every night in Victorian garb. We usually end up sitting near the carvery in the restaurant’s pubby portion, but there are several dining rooms and outdoor tables as well. Tam O’Shanter, 2980 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 664-0228, lawrysonline.com/tam-o-shanter/
Behold our magical SoCal Advent calendar, featuring one festive thing to do for all 31 days of December.
Flunch at Figaro: Flunch is a French cafeteria chain, but it’s also what we call anything consumed outside the house after coffee and before 1 p.m. And when we have out-of-towners joining, we especially like two places in Los Feliz Village: Figaro, the French sidewalk bistro (and instagram darling) on Vermont Avenue; and Alcove, the patio cafe on Hillhurst. I wish Figaro weren’t so crowded so often, but I love its quiches and croissants, and the option of wandering up to Skylight Books after the meal. I used to wish Alcove’s indoor dining area was bigger (it’s a converted home), but now I’m going to head straight outside anyway. And is there a more pleasant patio east of Highland? I also like the option of ordering “breakfast” until 5 p.m. And this probably goes without saying: Figaro and Alcove come with prime people-watching. Figaro Bistrot, 1802 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 662-1587; Alcove Cafe & Bakery, 1929 N. Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 644-0100, alcovecafe.com
Breakfast at Good Stuff: As the parent of a small child — for whom “sleeping in” is anything past 6 a.m. — I like to take guests to early breakfast, which means decent parking (!) and a leg up on the much hipper brunch crowd. I adore Good Stuff in Hermosa Beach, right next to the sand, the Strand, and, glory be, the 13th Street parking garage. The patio seating, which can get crowded by mid-morning, has a classic SoCal view of the water and beach volleyball nets. (Not that my cranky, one-eyed 12-year-old Gizmo T. Pug is well-behaved enough to join, but dogs are welcome, and the restaurant has a canine menu that includes brown rice, ground turkey and grilled chicken.) There’s a good mix of health-conscious and comfort food. I like the fresh-baked muffins, carnitas breakfast tacos, and the spicy ground turkey scramble. My kid digs the Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes. 1286 The Strand, Hermosa Beach, eatgoodstuff.com
Lunch at Redondo Coffee Shop and Bait & Tackle Shop: I grew up in landlocked Oklahoma, so I never tire of being near the ocean and bringing guests to the beach. I always enjoy taking visitors to the Redondo Coffee Shop at the end of the Redondo Beach Pier. (It doubles as a bait shop, which this Okie who grew up swimming and fishing in questionable pond water can appreciate.) It ain’t fancy, but it’s filled with well-worn, cozy booths and big windows, perfect for watching fishermen, seabirds and seals. This is a comfort-food, breakfast-for-lunch joint with good home fries, bacon and eggs benedict. 141 Fisherman’s Wharf, Redondo Beach
Snack at Randy’s Donuts: Yeah, I opt for the basic tourist trip to Randy’s. Sue me. I’ve never seen my Great Plains-born-and-bred father-in-law more star-struck than when he ogled that famed giant doughnut atop the venerable Randy’s in Inglewood. I think the man actually teared up, and we posed for more photos with Randy’s than with the Pacific Ocean itself. You really can’t go wrong with a chocolate old-fashioned, or a Nutella raised doughnut. 805 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood, randysdonuts.com
Mark Kelegian was looking for a business he could run in 2015, when he learned that L.A.’s iconic Randy’s Donuts was up for sale. Now the Newport Beach family is living the sweet life.
Dinner at ToM’s TaCos: After a full day of entertaining, I love this small, no-frills, cash-only, strip-mall taco spot near an AutoZone and a Vons. This neighborhood favorite has a simple, cheap menu of greasy hard-shell tacos with heaps of shredded cheddar, crispy taquitos, hefty bean and cheese burritos and fresh salsas. The chips — served in enormous portions for to-go orders — are what my late grandmother would call “musty”: You eat one, you must eat another. 4669 Torrance Blvd, Torrance, tomstacos.com
Breakfast at G.E. Chano’s: In L.A., the land of the burrito, breakfast should likewise come in burrito form. One of the best is the machaca con huevo burrito at Chano’s: a pillowy cylinder of tender beef, scrambled eggs, pico de gallo and beans. It’s the sort of meal that serves as a culinary corrective to all the rotgut you may have imbibed the night before. Vegetarian? Chano’s produces a burrito stuffed with a whole chile relleno — and, totally true story, it’s been known to raise the dead.
3309 N. Mission Road, Lincoln Heights, gechanos.com
Lunch at Coni’Seafood: If you love someone a lot, you will pick them up at LAX. If you love that person even more, you will take them for a pit stop at Coni’Seafood, a family-operated mariscos restaurant that serves seafood in the style of the Mexican state of Nayarit. Just minutes from the tarmac, this is the place to dive into mountainous platters of ceviche and spicy camarones a la diabla (literal translation: shrimps, devil style!), not to mention the one-of-a-kind smoked marlin tacos. In fact, if this is the only thing your visitors do when they visit SoCal, it will have been worth the trip. 3544 W. Imperial Hwy., Inglewood, (310) 672-2339, coniseafood.com
Snack at Kindle’s Do-Nuts: It’s the rule that anyone visiting L.A. must eat a doughnut from architecture that resembles a doughnut. For most folks, this means a pilgrimage to Randy’s on Manchester Boulevard. Kindle’s, built in the early ’50s, was once part of a citywide chain that included Randy’s, renowned for its eye-catching architectural donuts on the roof, but now it’s a standalone neighborhood joint. Here, you can still get the Instagram pix of the doughnut in front of the doughnut-tecture, but the basic glazed and raised sits like a sugary cloud on the tongue. If you really want a good pic, get the signature Texas Glazed, a dinner plate-sized doughnut that is architectural in scale. 10003 Normandie Ave., Los Angeles
Drinks at Coast Beach Cafe and Bar at Shutters on the Beach: Out-of-towners, especially those who visit from snowy climes, like to soak up the SoCal vibes. If you want to do it in style, there is no place more apropos than the open-air cafe at the luxurious Shutters, where the air is redolent of wealth management and briny Pacific Ocean breezes. The eats are just OK and come at luxury hotel prices (expect to drop $20 for a cocktail), but the location, on the coast, is prime. The best plan of attack, which I picked up from Santa Monica artist Jeff Weiss, is to land around sunset for a special re-tox menu that consists of several rounds of gin martinis accompanied by trays of raw oysters. Afterward, hightail it up the block to Cha Cha Chicken, where you can soak up the Bombay Sapphire with a plate of jerk chicken and fried plantains. Shutters on the Beach, 1 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, shuttersonthebeach.com; Cha Cha Chicken, 1906 Ocean Ave., (310) 581-1684, chachachicken.com
Dinner at Pine & Crane: Can you build an entire meal around sautéed spicy peanuts? Yes. Yes, you can. And at Pine & Crane, that meal just gets better with everything you add: dan dan noodles, beef rolls, spicy shrimp wontons, Jidori chicken and mapo tofu in glorious carnivorous and vegetarian editions! Plus, it’s a space that manages to feel homey despite being located in the Bermuda Triangle of Hipster — and the kind of place most out-of-towners simply aren’t likely to end up at on their own. 1521 Griffith Park Blvd., Silver Lake, pineandcrane.com
Sake at Ototo: I live near enough to Ototo — the Echo Park sake bar run by Courtney Kaplan and Charles Namba, who also operate the izakaya Tsubaki (one of my favorite restaurants in the city) — to be able to walk there with visiting friends. Kaplan’s sake list is impassioned and mind-opening: She has seasonally released specials and quality sakes meant to be gently warmed to best appreciate them; she and her staff can discuss degrees of polished rice and filtering without talking over your head. And Namba’s menu of bar snacks (tempura, pastas, okonomiyaki, a chili burger available now only on Mondays) just gets better. 1360 Allison Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 784-7930, ototo.la
Mama Lina Cooks brings Lebanese comfort food from her home to yours
Coffee galore: Good coffee probably will be in order the next morning. Three stellar options are an easy drive from my apartment: Jack Benchakul’s one-barista operation Endorffeine in Far East Plaza for sublime pour-overs; Dayglow in Silver Lake, with its ever-changing lineup from micro-roasters with tasting notes that might read “peach pie, blueberry, custard” (and can be astonishingly accurate); and Kumquat for its fantastic drinks like Cloudy With a Chance of Peanuts, made with espresso, peanut foam and cold milk … and for its compact, excellent breakfast burrito. Endorffeine, 727 N. Broadway, #127, Los Angeles, endorffeine.coffee; Dayglow, 3206 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 522-3764, coffeetoglow.com; Kumquat, 4936 York Blvd., Los Angeles, kumquatcoffee.com
California cuisine at Hugo’s Restaurant: Hugo’s is an everyday, neighborhood restaurant, casual and functional. Two things are key: It is walking distance from my home and almost everyone, whether vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo, keto, pegan or whatever will get not just “something to eat” but a really good meal — and it doesn’t taste like “health food.” There are loads of vegetables in many dishes (which is not always the case back East, where most of my visitors and I are from) and lean proteins to build around or add. And there are plenty of desserts, most of which one would never guess are vegan and/or gluten-free. Most breakfast items, from eggs any style to the protein scramble, chilaquiles and the novel Pasta Mama (pasta scrambled with eggs, garlic, parsley and Parmesan cheese), are available all day though some items, like the cinnamon swirl French toast (gluten-free) are available only until 4 p.m. They offer a Cuban sandwich, a vegan Reuben, quesadillas and tacos, and a house-made veggie burger. The grass-fed beef burger is a personal favorite — always perfectly grilled, juicy and loaded with fixings. Another favorite is the Power of Greens salad, to which I add grilled organic tofu. You can also build your own omelet, pasta, salad or burger. Again, it’s not fancy food, but even throughout the pandemic, I have ordered a burger or a Power of Greens salad about once a week. For anyone committed to their food plan, Hugo’s is a slice of heaven, and dietary restrictions or not, it is very L.A. 12851 Riverside Drive, Studio City, (818) 761-8985; and 8401 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood, (323) 654-3993, hugosrestaurant.com
Middle Eastern at Carnival: After living in the Middle East for the better part of 10 years, Carnival meets my regular demand — and rather high standards — for hummus, baba ganoush, dolma, shawarma, grilled skewered meats and such. The atmosphere is not much to speak of but Carnival is about great Lebanese food at reasonable prices, and it makes good on that every time. The French fries are killer, hand-cut and double fried. There are specials for each day of the week — Tuesdays it’s braised lamb shank, Thursdays it’s baked kafta or sheik mahshi. My mom is partial to the moussaka vegetables. My father loved the beautifully seasoned, grilled lamb chops (which come with those fries). I still regularly order those chops to honor his memory (it’s a great excuse for eating French fries, no?). 4356 Woodman Ave., Sherman Oaks, (818) 784-3469, carnivalrest.com
Snacks/coffee at Aroma Coffee and Tea Co.: Located on an out-of-the-way street lined with charming shops and eateries, this bustling cafe offers limited table service and a broad menu of breakfast and lunch and light dinner fare — salads, sandwiches, tacos, rice bowls, etc. It’s all good. Stand in line (often long but it moves) and order at the counter. They give you a number and deliver your food and drinks (except water, which is self-serve). Roam the patios, indoor rooms and backyard/garden to find a table. Much of the clientele is hip, down-to-earth Hollywood hopefuls in their many denominations, up on the latest low-key fashion and watching what they eat. You often unwittingly overhear actors discussing auditions and other industry-related chatter along with the real-life dramas that people discuss over coffee. 4360 Tujunga Ave., Studio City, (818) 508-6505, aromacoffeeandtea.com
For the tamal-obsessed, here is a quick and up-to-date checklist of the best local tamales in town, from the Valley to Watts.
Dinner at Prosecco Trattoria: A charming, low-key, neighborhood northern Italian place, Prosecco never disappoints. The atmosphere is cozy and welcoming, the staff knowledgeable and attentive, the food excellent. On weekends you do need a reservation — they will fully book the tables rather than reserve a percentage for walk-ins. It is a popular eatery in a neighborhood populated with industry execs due to its proximity to the studios — but not so trendy that you have to book weeks or months in advance. I can usually get a table the day before or the day of. Favorites include corn risotto with grilled tiger shrimp, calamari and scallops; chicken lasagna; and eggplant Prosecco. The bread pudding is exceptional. One post-pandemic change for the better: There is now service on Sundays. For once, I can say “Thank you, COVID-19,” and really mean it. 10144 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake, (818) 505-0930, proseccotrattoria.com
Breakfast at Taqueria Zamora: Chilaquiles remains my favorite breakfast ever — hefty, multiflavored, Mexican — but I rarely order it at restaurants because too many turn the surprisingly complex dish into little better than a stew of tortilla strips, or just dump store-bought chips on a plate, toss cotija and warm salsa onto them and call them desayuno. But this SanTana spot is a chilaquiles Venn diagram: Some strips are soft, some are hard, all are delicious and sluiced with your choice of red or green salsa, and they unite on a plate accompanied by a side of soft Mexican rice and silky refried pintos enlivened with toasted chiles de árbol. Grab one of the face-sized handmade corn tortillas, throw some chilaquiles into one and you’ve got the best breakfast tacos this side of HomeState. 3121 Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 557-0907, taqueriazamora.net
Lunch at Heritage Barbecue: The line’s going to be a minimum half-hour here if you’re lucky, and the drive to South Orange County — the last redoubt of the old, nasty O.C. — long and scary, but people from across the country now make pilgrimages to gorge at the altar that is Danny Castillo’s four 1,000-gallon smokers. In those playful steampunk beasts, he prepares brisket, links, turkeys, chickens and random surprises (a pastrami one day, steak the next) for the best barbecue in California. And since we’re in California, Castillo doesn’t try to pretend he’s in central Texas — he instead offers a riotous menu with daily specials that can range from banh mi to adobo bowls to burritos made on Burritos La Palma tortillas to a weekend blueberry bread pudding that will make you forsake apple pie for good. 31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, heritagecraftbbq.com
Snack at Tocumbo Ice Cream: There are more than 200 ice cream shops in Southern California with some variant of “Michoacana” in their name, but can you say any of them are really distinguishable from their peers? Instead, I take guests to this Anaheim spot, which is across the street from a La Michoacana Deluxe, no less. The Quiroz family is from its nevería’s namesake town in Michoacán, the place where so many paisanos went into the ice cream industry that a 50-foot concrete statue of a popsicle stands at the town’s entrance. They understand the importance of feeding diasporas, so in addition to Mexican American nostalgia flavors like mazapán or Gansito ice cream, they’ll also create flavors based on ingredients from across Latin America: maracuya (passion fruit), quince, even the Peruvian lucuma when available. But Tocumbo’s rarest flavor is also its most popular: Fervi, a cinnamon-laced chocolate de metate from Jerez, Zacatecas, that draws in my cousins, siblings and friends whenever the Quirozes make a batch. It’s only available when one of us jerezanos goes back to the motherland to bring him a brick or 30. 956 S. Euclid St, Anaheim, (714) 603-7947, tocumbooc.com
Dinner at Taco Maria: I have known Taco Maria chef Carlos Salgado now for over a decade — seen him start with a taco truck, then graduate to his tiny Costa Mesa spot, have a bouncing baby boy with his Wisconsinite playwright wife, Emilie Coulson Salgado, weather COVID-19 by going all to-go, then switch back to dine-in at his small patio where he has stenciled “Black Lives Matter” onto the windows that overlook diners dropping three figures on the best Mexican meal of their life. What amazes me about the second-generation restaurateur is that he has never watered down his ingredients or his panache. Salgado might not serve tacos anymore but he does hand over a half-dozen of his earthy blue-corn tortillas with each entree so you can make your own. Come for the In-N-Out homage called Cortez the Killer, stay for the smoked pickled onions that bring the countryside to a hipster shopping plaza in Costa Mesa. And his aguachile might be a couple of bites, but its spice, sourness and sweet is the best encapsulation of Mexico’s contradictions since Frida and Diego. 3313 Hyland Ave, Costa Mesa (714) 538-8444, tacomaria.com
Drinks at Kelly’s Korner Tavern: I don’t drink beer, which might make it seem strange that I’m recommending an Irish pub that doesn’t serve liquor. But I always take my friends here, especially on Thursday nights, when the best bar trivia in Southern California packs in the place. Host Dougie Craig insults you like a Borscht Belt hoofer while everyone enjoys spectacular bar food — huge sandwiches, vast carne asada nachos, a cookie a la mode that’ll make you think of sixth grade — under the glow of 30-plus televisions while washing it all down with craft beers. Ask them if they have Underberg liqueur — they usually keep a box just for me! 907 E. Yorba Linda Blvd., Placentia (714) 961-9396, kellys92870.com
In Los Angeles, Zapotec street vendors organize free weekly cookouts — but it’s done for more than charity.
Late night at Tacos El Yogi: Orange County generally closes at 10 (with the exception of Little Saigon), but this bright-yellow trailer with a bespectacled, mustachioed Yogi Bear painted on its side will stay open each weekend until there are no more customers. They sell awesome tacos and a hell of a guajolota (a tamale torta — carb upon carb!), but I always make my friends swing by here before going home so I can order one of the carne asada quesadillas. There’s nothing really special about them — it’s just juicy beef baked inside Monterey Jack that fuses together a slightly crisped flour tortilla. But this is pure home cooking — and the bright red salsa that accompanies it will give you a second wind that’ll drive you to your Los Angeles nightcap. Corner of Birch Street and McFadden Avenue, Santa Ana
Wi Spa dine-in: If someone is visiting me from out of town, automatically we’re close — like super close, like see me gloriously full-frontal close, and that means it’s Korean spa time, which also means it’s all about K-town. (My recommendations: the 24/7 Wi Spa, 2700 Wilshire Blvd., or the women-only Hugh Spa, 1101 S. Vermont Ave.)
There is nothing like getting a deep and profound scrubbing, dipping in various temperatures of hot to hotter and going from one meditative heated room to another, then another, and then an ice room to work up an insatiable appetite. This always happens: hours at a K-town spa call for a couple of shared meals plus a dessert—served at the spa in a common area, clothing required. A must always is tteokbokki (spicy rice cake), the most nostalgic, childhood street food for Koreans, followed by a stew; I recommend the yukgaejang (spicy beef soup), which hits the spots, starting with the back of the throat, and warms all parts of the insides. And no respectable spa-goer leaves without sharing a hefty bowl of popingsu. The meals are not too different from the spa experience itself — lots of heat and a little cold to jolt. Not the most remarkable food in the foodie sense, but pretty epic as part of the whole bonding experience. Remember you have just seen your friends very naked.
Drinks on the town: After the spa, it’s time to hit one of the many easy and chill, come-as-you-are drinking spots in K-town. By now, it’s been a few hours since you’ve eaten anyway, and Koreans don’t really drink without food. It’s called anju and it’s why I actually love alcohol. Head to DwitGolmok (aka Back Alley). It is one of my fave spots to take my non-Korean-speaking friends, so I can pretend my Korean is dope when I order. Try anything and everything. It’s all good. Or head to Chapman Plaza, a place that pulses at all hours and is walkable to a wide variety of food and drinking options. You could start round two of the evening by going to Toe Bang and sharing a carafe of the lychee soju cocktail. It goes down super smooth, but be warned — it will creep up on you. DwitGolMok, 3275 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 382-8432; Chapman Plaza: 3465 W. 6th St., Los Angeles; Toe Bang, 3465 W. 6th St., #110, Los Angeles, (213) 387-4905
Eat your way across L.A.
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