You’ve never seen a Caesar salad like this before

A bowl piled high with lettuce, rice paper shards and shredded cheese.
The Caesar salad from Poltergeist in Echo Park.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Because sometimes you just need a salad. This chicory salad in Santa Monica and Caesar in Echo Park are extraordinary.


I like to think of salads as playgrounds for my favorite dressings. Sharp shallot vinaigrette, creamy Blue cheese and punchy, salty Caesar. Most of the time I lean toward a wedge. Cobbs are fun. Caesar is always welcome. This week’s recommendations celebrate excellent salads. Because sometimes, you just need a salad.

Caesar salad at Poltergeist

Diego Argoti once described his new restaurant Poltergeist, inside the Button Mash arcade bar in Echo Park, as a neighborhood restaurant, if a neighborhood restaurant were dreamed up by an alien. Before the restaurant, he hosted pop-up dinners where people waited in hours-long lines for his garlic chive tagliatelle with spicy chile oil, basil leaves, emerald plum XO sauce, smoked mushrooms and pistachio tahini. And the handmade Sonora flour alkaline noodles in a kielbasa dashi with yellow mustard, neon relish and a quail egg. I omitted some of the components for brevity, but you get the idea. This is a chef for whom rules and conventions do not exist.

For Poltergeist, Argoti fashioned a menu that keeps the spirit of his Estrano pop-ups intact, but with a little more structure.


“You have your salads, pastas, your mains, or whatever you see on menus every day now, but it’s kind of like catfishing an audience right now,” he said. “In a way, the menu is designed to kind of be an upside down or parallel universe of what you’d expect.”

In that same vein, it might make sense that his least favorite salad to eat, the Caesar, is his favorite to make.

“I order them anywhere I go,” he said. “It’s my favorite salad to not like. There is comfort in knowing what I’m not going to like about it.”

He challenged himself to create a Caesar-inspired salad he actually enjoys. Something that will get the Caesar salad fans to order it, then completely reanimate the salad they think they know and love.

The principles remain similar in chef Paul Chung’s treatment of striped bass from Baja. Plus, going for hot pot in Tustin.

March 13, 2023

What arrives at the table is a miniature replica of Krypton. Tall, green jagged shards tower over the bowl, concealing thorny tentacles of frisee and mountain of shaved Parmesan curls underneath. The pieces of kryptonite are actually fried rice paper flecked with a green powder made from basil, parsley and lime leaf. You break the pieces and mix them into the salad to create de facto croutons.

Argoti uses a lemongrass oil for the dressing and blends in egg yolks, pickled mustard seeds, lemon, raw lime leaves, capers, fish sauce and cold-smoked anchovies. He finishes the salad with a drizzle of his house vinaigrette, made with sesame oil, mirin, aleppo pepper and a minimal amount of rosewater.


The Parmesan cheese and anchovy immediately register Caesar salad. But then there’s a quick fusillade of lemongrass and lime leaf, a tidal wave of Thai basil and some serious oomph from the fish sauce. It’s heavily dressed and unevenly tossed, with intense pockets of dressing and cheese that ensure each bite is its own adventure.

“I use my hands like a claw machine from ‘Toy Story,’ to toss it,” he said.

It sounds like a lot, and it is. But the flavors entangle, harmonize and build into an otherworldly Caesar unlike any other.

Chicory salad and citrus salads from Isla

A plate piled with Romaine lettuce and dusted with onion ash.
The chicory salad from Isla in Santa Monica.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

There are plenty of dishes that are brought to life by copious amounts of good, creamy, salty butter.

March 20, 2023

Brian Bornemann may be known best for his mastery of fresh seafood at Crudo e Nudo in Santa Monica, but at the new Isla down the street, he’s a salad wizard. His chicory salad eats like the best bites of a heavily curated cheese board over a bed of purple and green Coleman Farms treviso.

It’s a salad presented in four acts. At the very top is a blanket of burnt onion ash, jet black and earthy, prepared in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven. Next is a walnut anchoiade, a sort of chunky anchovy garlic salsa with toasted walnuts and citrus. He tosses in some squares of Cypress Grove Cheese’s Midnight Moon, a nutty and buttery aged goat cheese. Then comes the lettuce, bitter and just a tad wilted under the weight of all the nuts and cheese. And for the finale, a sharp vinegar sauce along the bottom of the plate, crowded with tiny squares of shallots swollen with ruby port and Pedro Ximenez sherry vinegar.

A plate lined with fruit wedges.
Citrus salad from Isla in Santa Monica.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Bornemann is also taking whatever citrus is in season and fashioning it into an exemplary version of a salad with no greens at all. Supremes of pomelo, various oranges and mandarinquats are piled onto a plate with caper berries and tossed with a chile crisp. For crunch and even more dimension, he finishes the salad with a charred Meyer lemon dressing and a marcona almond dukkah spiked with fennel pollen and yuzu oil.

Each component is singular and present. The mandarinquats specifically, served with the peels attached, are like sweet buried treasure. I hope my dining companion didn’t notice me selfishly fishing them out of the salad.

The plate of citrus also serves as a condiment for the various meat, vegetable and seafood skewers that make up the bulk of the menu. Next time, I might order the citrus salad as a starter and another as a side.

Poltergeist, 1391 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 250-9903,
Isla, 2424 Main St., Santa Monica,