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2021 was the second-driest year in California’s recorded history. In L.A., there was no rain in November for the first time since 1992, and the mercury settled above 80 almost every afternoon that month. Our climate is usually arid, but this is extreme. We are in a drought (despite some recent record-breaking rain), with depleted reservoirs and dusty hillsides. But there was a silver lining: 2021 was also a year of eating outdoors, in parks and on decks, standing next to open trunks or sitting on the curb, in parking lots converted into patios and parklets jutting into the street, so we needed those blue skies.

It was a year of eating outdoors because the pandemic demanded it, because our climate allowed it and because many of the best eating experiences in L.A. are not to be found in traditional restaurants. That has always been true of food trucks and stands, but 2021 was also a huge year for pop-ups, some based out of homes and some that traveled, some that took over other kitchens and some that sprung up in kiosks like a custom T-shirt shop at the mall.

It may not have been the year that we hoped it might be, but at least we ate well.

The Jewel City at Quarter Sheets

Waiting awkwardly in a stranger’s yard, tapping on my phone and pointedly not looking at the other people doing the same will be a lasting pandemic memory for me. This year, I tried a lot of home-based pop-ups. Quarter Sheets was among the very best, a Detroit-ish style pizzeria run out of a charming bungalow on a busy street in southeast Glendale.

Detroit style pizza has taken over the town a little bit – it’s hard to deny the power of crispy cheese crust – and Quarter Sheets lands in that tradition. Their basics are exceptional, especially the cheese pie that they call Red Top, after the characteristic Detroit-style marinara on top of the cheese. The crust is surprisingly airy, puffed up like focaccia so it eats lighter than it has any right to, the tomato sauce has just the right sweet-tart balance, and the crown of cheese on the edges is spot-on.

But it is their special pizzas, usually one per day on a rotating basis, that truly stand out. The House Special #2 with pineapple, jalapeno, guanciale and garlic is a palate bomb, landing heavy on every part of your tongue. The Jewel City is a stunner, generously sprinkled with fresh basil and the fiery sambal of crispy onions and garlic made by their Glendale neighbors, Balinese pop-up Bungkus Bagus.

I’ve waited a long time in their driveway to pick up pizza, sweating in the sun and shivering in the dark, bopping to the mellow jams they play like hold music. I actually think I’ll miss that when their forthcoming brick-and-mortar officially opens just before the calendar turns to 2022.

Bento Box and Kirin at Wadatsumi

Sometimes takeout is the only option, and sometimes the traffic on the way home is too much to bear – this is L.A., after all. That’s when you pull over on a quiet industrial street, take a seat on the curb and eat your whole damn lunch right there. If you were going to do something like that, the South Bay Japanese generalist Wadatsumi would – theoretically – be a killer choice.

It may not have been the year that we hoped it might be, but at least we ate well.

Wadatsumi’s menu is unusually large but they specialize in rice bowls, mostly topped with various cuts of sashimi or fine slices of high-end beef. The curry is a sleeper hit, and their onigiri make excellent snacks. But if you are there while the sun’s up, the bento is the best way to get a feel for the menu, a rotating selection of items that are somehow always excellent, whether you get grilled mackerel or simmered beef, pickled cucumber or marinated eggplant, or anything else. As long as it comes with their meticulously cooked and immaculately sourced rice.

It all pairs perfectly with a patch of rough grass, a solid slab of concrete curb, and – if it’s the right kind of day – a crisp Kirin, maybe split with your passenger if you’ve got one.

Scallop Aguachile at Holbox

For those of us who care deeply about food, a celebratory meal doesn’t necessarily mean white tablecloths and buttery rich dishes. Sometimes a meal in a parking lot on the south side of downtown, close enough to the freeway to hear when someone screws up a merge, can be a meal fit for a special occasion. Holbox is that sort of place.

The Yucatan-inspired seafood spot from talented chef Gilberto Cetina Jr., who is also behind the neighboring Chichen Itza, may be a counter in a food court, but their sourcing and technique are so on point, and the dishes are constructed so precisely that every visit is a special occasion in and of itself. The ceviches are perfect, the octopus is gorgeous, the charred habanero Kut is unparalleled and the coctel is the best I’ve ever had. But the dish that takes my breath away over and over again is their scallop aguachile.

It is electric, buzzing with chile and lime and cilantro, a ring of pale scallop moons orbiting a swirl of thinly sliced avocado. It is green on green on green with stunning intensity, flavor bumping up against synesthesia. The experience is transcendent, and would be so on the Yucatan peninsula, at a fine-dining table, or in the makeshift patio they’ve constructed to survive this year.

Toffee Scotch Doodle at Laroolou

While mall kiosks may not engender much excitement, Laroolou, the dessert specialist at Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, absolutely does. Their pies are outstanding, including the award-winning Sir Salted Earl – with sea salt, earl grey tea and honey – and a masterful seasonal pie inspired by the Puerto Rican spiced coconut holiday drink Coquito.

What truly blew us away, though, were their signature thiccies, overstuffed cookies with crispy edges and a gooey, protuberant center so they look like a crumbly brown Newgrange. The Salted Cookies N Cream has Oreos, sea salt and white chocolate baked in, a sugary tomb in which we’d love to be buried. The Toffee Scotch Doodle is like a snickerdoodle on steroids just after a good workout, a swollen beast pumped full of cinnamon, butterscotch chips and toffee. These thiccies are – as the name implies – not a light snack. They make the perfect cap to a food crawl at Far East Plaza, home to Lasita, Amboy and Endorffeine.

Fried Pickles and an IPA at The Hermosillo

I don’t think it was strictly the best meal I ate all year, but my favorite meal of 2021 was in the early summer, at The Hermosillo bar. They happen to brew and stock the best hoppy beer in the L.A. area, and – not coincidentally – they happen to be my local hangout. The food is simple and very good, a burger and a vegan hot dog, some tacos and a fried chicken sandwich, and the menu highlight – fried pickles. They come in a waxy brown serving tray, cornmeal battered and mixed in with a generous portion of fried jalapenos, salty and crunchy with a hit of vinegar, the ideal bar snack.

I ate them with a pint of Timbo Pils, a unique expression of the Pilsner style that drinks more like a West Coast IPA, clean and sharp and bitter, a big hit of citrus and pine flavors with tons of tiny bubbles that keep it dry and refreshing. It’s a helluva beer.

But the real reason that this was my favorite meal was because of the company. It was my first time sharing a table with friends since March of 2020, the first time we split a dish, the first time we hugged. It was so surreal and also so natural, a celebration and a reminder. When I left I was happy, and that feeling has stuck with me.

This is why we eat. This is why we drink. I hope we get to do a lot more like it in 2022.

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