My front-row seat to L.A.’s evolving food scene

Food editor Daniel Hernandez, left, and food manager Laurie Ochoa at Mariscos Jalisco
Food editor Daniel Hernandez, left, and food manager Laurie Ochoa at Mariscos Jalisco
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
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The first sip of boat noodle soup at Hollywood’s Sapp Coffee Shop is always the most satisfying. The broth, rich with funk, is sprinkled with a green confetti burst of cilantro, a bit of brightness atop the soup’s murky depths. Meatballs bob on the surface beside slices of beef, tendon, liver, feathery tripe and comma curls of pig skin. I make sure to take at least a bite or two of the cracker-crisp pig skin before it yields to the broth and softens.

This isn’t a dish for eaters with tender palates, yet in its complexity and assertiveness, its blend of sweet and acid and undercurrents of chile heat and, yes, pork blood, I consider it one of the essential dishes of Los Angeles. Boat noodles, or kuay teow rua, may have come from someplace else — Thailand’s Rangsit Prayoonsak canal, as the story goes, in the northern suburban reaches of greater Bangkok — but that makes sense. Because most of us Angelenos come from someplace else even if we were born here.

I was born in an East L.A. hospital on Olympic Boulevard, just a four-minute drive from Raul Ortega’s Mariscos Jalisco truck, purveyor of tacos dorados de camarones, another essential Los Angeles dish that originally comes from someplace else — Mexico’s San Juan de Los Lagos — but is now as integral to our city’s cuisine as Wolfgang Puck’s smoked salmon pizza, Roy Choi’s short rib taco or Langer’s hot pastrami. Chances are good that longtime L.A. Times readers are already familiar with Sapp and Mariscos Jalisco, for they were favorite places of Jonathan Gold, who until his 2018 death was this paper’s restaurant critic and my husband. Starting in my early 20s, I learned to love my city and my Latino heritage by eating alongside Jonathan, eventually becoming this paper’s food editor and the executive editor of Gourmet magazine when it was led by Ruth Reichl.

Food editor Daniel Hernandez and food manager Laurie Ochoa sit down for tacos at Mariscos Jalisco
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)
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After a detour away from what Jonathan called “our small, happy world of food” — to become editor in chief of the L.A. Weekly, co-founder of the literary journal Slake: Los Angeles and deputy editor of entertainment coverage here at The Times — I have returned to L.A. Times Food, this time as general manager with food editor Daniel Hernandez and deputy food editor Betty Hallock.

From Times editors Laurie Ochoa and Daniel Hernandez: There’s no better place or moment for eating and cooking than in Los Angeles right now.

In many ways I never left the food world, but the urge to return in an official role was sparked by the resilience, generosity and inventiveness I’ve seen from the people who feed Los Angeles. In the takeout-only days, there were produce boxes and ready-to-bake biscuits from Go Get Em Tiger. From Yang’s Kitchen, sesame noodles and boxes of Harry’s Berries. And from places like Vespertine and n/naka, full-on feasts in a box to be eaten in backyards with socially distanced friends. When outdoor and eventually indoor dining returned, we found a changed restaurant landscape with established stars demonstrating fresh ways to express their ideas and new faces bringing ambition and creative defiance to a high-stress business climate. I think of the congee pot pie at Yangban Society, the whole pork chop wedged into a pineapple bun at Pearl River Deli, tiny gunpowder shrimp at Camphor and the uni-and-Iberico-ham doughnut that is a stand-out dish on the tough-to-reserve tasting menu at Kato but can often be ordered at the bar with a cocktail if you drop in on a quiet night.

In time, we’ll know if these or other dishes will become part of the repertoire of essential L.A. flavors. Meanwhile, as the food scene evolves and cookbook authors and chefs devise new ways to bring us together at the table, I want a front-row seat.