Food without attitude: Eat like a local in LA
AS A LONGTIME Los Angeles resident, it saddens me to hear from visitors who’ve had negative dining experiences in my city. Banishment to the bathroom-adjacent table for not looking “the part,” sneered at for requesting dressing on the side — these incidents are, in my opinion, exceptions to the general rule of fast and personable service, reasonable prices, and a reverence for our locally grown food. If this is the experience you’re looking for, give these places a try.
It’s an unlikely place for one of the best brunches in town, but on the ground floor of a past-its-prime Travelodge, on a stretch of Washington marked by body shops, a Chevron station, and a view of the San Diego Freeway, lives the Metro Café. If you come on the weekend, expect to wait (and given limited space, possibly on the floor), but in exchange for your patience you’ll get gourmet egg dishes with grilled zucchini and avocado salsa and fruity sides of pineapple, pear, banana, berries, and lip-staining pomegranate.
If you’re feeling indulgent, have the French toast, extra-thick slices of sugar-dusted brioche served with tart, house-made raspberry jam. There are milkshakes on the menu but as your waiter will explain, they were axed to make freezer space for beer. I for one, respect their priorities.
Known for: Caramelized banana pancakes.
Pair with: Python-gazing at Ecostation, LA’s best zoo alternative.
On an Eastside corner between the Lark Cake Shop and hipster hair salon The Hive, Heywood: A Grilled Cheese Shoppe is a counter-service-and-chalkboard spot with fancy versions of my favorite after-school snack.
You can’t go wrong with their namesake — a crisp, browned sourdough with buttery sheen oozing melted English cheddar and caramelized onion confit ($11) — but their ‘Muy Caliente’ is inspired.
Fontina, spicy jack, and cream cheese meld in a combo of stringy and creamy; sliced jalapenos add heat; and red and black tortilla chips bring the crunch ($10). Sandwiches are served with a rich tomato bisque dipping sauce. Dessert is a triple-layered, house-made s’mores bar with crumble topping and solid milk chocolate middle ($2.25).
Known for: Curbing hangovers.
Pair with: Flamenco dancing at El Cid.
Seasonal and local
LA farmers markets are great for picnic-ready pre-prepared foods. At the Venice Market (Fridays, 7-11am), Dave’s Gourmet Korean serves to-go cups of hot fermented broth ($3) to which you can add their signature brown rice tempha ($5), a sort of chewy vegan crack that I would live on if it made any kind of sense. You’ll also find specialty items like mung bean noodles and daikon radish ($5 each). Something of a local heartthrob, the charismatic Dave makes occasional cameos — just look for the gaggle of yogi-thin women, eager for his take on the health properties of codonopsis.
For dessert, cross town to the Original Farmers Market (open daily), a fragrant maze of encased pies and glazed tarts, gourmet coffee counters, and some of the city’s favorite restaurants. Here, in the same booth since 1946, is Littlejohn’s Candies, a green awninged purveyor of light-catching gummies in glass jars, famous English toffee and, in my opinion, the reason for coming: velvety, unctuous fudge ($3.60 for a two-ounce piece).
Unlike some of its crumbly, overly sweet brethren, too closely resembling the saccharine maple sugar candy of my Canadian youth, Littlejohn’s fudge has depth to go with its sweetness, lending what my British husband Dean would call a “moreish” quality — you just keep wanting more. Flavors include Penoche (brown sugar) and Rocky Road, but I say you can’t improve on plain chocolate.
Known for: Farm-fresh food.
Pair with: A walk through the Venice Canals (Venice Market), boutique shopping on West Third (Original Farmers Market).
South American comfort
I finally had the chance to try the celebrated Peruvian seafood at Mo-Chica on my last birthday. Once a small lunch stall in Southeast LA, this longtime dream of Food & Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chef” Ricardo Zarate now lives downtown with a hallway of staff-decorated tribal figurines and splashy backroom mural of a paint-can wielding, trucker hat-wearing llama.
But hip new digs do not equal attitude. Al contrario, our smiley waiter good-naturedly recited the evening’s eight specials and answered all my questions about unfamiliar ingredients in a way that said he was proud to be sharing Peruvian culture with the masses. One of the best things about trying a new cuisine is that even if the ingredients in a dish are familiar, you never know quite how they’ll appear.
Case in point: My crab appetizer was a savory cake with whipped potato base and avocado filling ($12), and my tagliatelle was an unlikely but harmonious combination of peanuts, black mint pesto, and butterflied tiger prawns ($14). For dessert, we had alfajores ($6), shortbread sandwiches filled with cold dulce de leche and covered with chocolate ganache.
Known for: Putting Peruvian cuisine in the spotlight.
Pair with: The GRAMMY Museum.
Evenly dotted around the city, Mexican fruit stands are hot-weather godsends selling five-buck, thirst-quenching plastic sacks of chopped pineapple, mango, cantaloupe, cucumber, and watermelon shaken together in a chili-lime juice dressing.
Known for: Preventing heat stroke.
Pair with: Public art scavenger hunt (Venice location at Windward and Main), gallery-hopping in Culver City (Washington and Clarington/Madison), lunchtime yoga at Grand Park (downtown location, Figueroa at Diamond).
Long before the fusion offerings of LA-based Kogi Korean BBQ sparked a worldwide mobile food phenomenon, taco trucks reigned our streets. These affectionately dubbed “roach coaches” hold their own by continuing to offer some of the most affordable, satisfying food in town. La Isla Bonita on Rose Avenue in Venice is a popular daytime stop (open 10am-4pm every day except Wednesday) for Mexican families and trendy locals who dine curbside, on the hoods of their cars, or pressed against the truck itself, applying and re-applying squirts of Sriracha and swigging from glass bottles of Mexican Coke. Their signature item is the ceviche tostada ($6.50), a crunchy corn disc with a chopped, lime-soaked fish topping.
At El Chato (open 9pm ‘til late), it’s all about the tacos ($1 each): warm and double-layered with grilled onions, cilantro, and your choice of meat, including carne asada (grilled beef), chili-rubbed el pastor (spit-roasted pork) or, for the brave, lengua (beef tongue) or cabeza (roasted beef head). They’re so good, Hatfield’s culinary duo, Karen and Quinn Hatfield, stop by on the way home from cooking one-star Michelin meals.
Known for: Cheap, authentic Mexican food.
Pair with: Surf lessons at Kapowui (La Isla Bonita), movie night at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (El Chato).
Creative and unusual
Billed as a “modern picnic” where you can “leave pretentious at the door,” AFrame’s communal seating, tented, fire-warmed patio, and menu of original bar snacks make it a strong contender for “best use of a discontinued IHOP.”
In this alternate dining universe, french fries are blue (made from Okinawa potato and thick as drumsticks), salads are soulful (like the ‘Veggie Nest,’ served hot and topped with breadcrumbs and creamy celery purée), and pickles may be the highlight of your meal (Asian pear, Persian cucumber, saffron-colored radish, and carrot fermented in sweet brine and paired with lemongrass blue cheese dip). Dishes are made for sharing but that’s obvious — who wants to hog Hawaiian kettle corn to herself?
Known for: Creative fusion food from the founder of the Kogi Truck.
Pair with: Live jazz at historic Culver Hotel.
Serving a loyal clientele of Hollywood screenwriters, contentious retirees, and sandy-haired beach bums, Venice coffeeshop Cow’s End is, according to their dangling painted sign, “where the locals hang.” It’s a fun house of canted angles, bizarre props (like life-sized plaster cattle), and black-and-white scenes from the neighborhood’s past (like a Miss Venice beauty contest from the 1920s), that is itself a holdover from the more recent past when Venice was a grungy bohemia.
To forget for a moment that your alley-facing room at the Hotel Erwin is costing $225/night, tuck into a create-your-own-sandwich with rosemary focaccia and 19 choices of deli meat, including marbled, slivered prosciutto and Ovengold turkey. There are over a hundred variants of espresso, tea, smoothie, shake-and-fresh juice, but I would eschew them all for the Vanilla Chai Latte; it’s like liquid gingerbread, and in the world of hyphenated coffee drinks, as good as it gets.
Known for: The “quiet room” upstairs, perfect for students, bloggers, and backpackers on bad trips.
Pair with: Cycling the Venice Boardwalk.
Living in the US, it’s easy to forget that the vinyl booths, sassy service, and classic burger, fries, and shake combo of the American diner can be a highlight for visitors. But whenever I take an overseas guest to Swingers, they gush over this throwback spot that looks “just like the movies.” Granted, its wacky decor and pink-haired waitresses in shredded tights put it on the edgy side of authentic, but Swingers is like an old friend.
Come before 11am for the Earlybird Special, two organic eggs with either pancakes or French toast and sausage or bacon ($4.50), or dive into a big-enough-for-two Breakfast Burrito smothered in tomatillo sauce, black beans, jack cheese, and cheddar ($8.25).
The shakes are thick, piled high with whipped cream, and come in flavors like Creamsicle (vanilla ice cream and fresh-squeezed orange juice, $4.50) and Rocket (chocolate ice cream with an espresso shot and espresso beans, $4.95). It’s hard to resist their red velvet, cookies & cream, and coconut “bite me” cupcakes ($3.95).
Known for: Classic diner food with a California twist.
Pair with: Oceanside stroll in Palisades Park (Santa Monica location), bar-hopping on Santa Monica Blvd (West Hollywood location).