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It’s Sunday morning in Los Angeles.

Behind the white door of a single-story house that blends in with its suburban neighbors, Jalia Walusimbi starts her day as she does every other.  Stripping the tough green skins from a cluster of plantains, she plunks the peeled fruit into a boiling pot to prepare a dish of matooke covered in peanut-based binyebwa to pair with the samosas, mbuzi goat soup and luwombo she’ll shortly place before the homesick Ugandan expats and curious culinary tourists who visit the informal restaurant she runs from inside her Van Nuys dining room.

Thirty-three miles southeast in Compton, Goat Mafia’s Juan Garcia opens a massive pot to lift a fatty layer of pork from a birria de chivo he’s been simmering for eight hours – true to the recipe his family has been making in the Mexican city of Tamazula de Gordiano, Jalisco, for over 100 years.

Los Angeles Food Scene

He’ll shortly convey this tender braised goat meat to Downtown’s weekly Smorgasburg event, where a crowd of L.A.’s culinary devotees will cram together over warm asphalt to nibble wood-smoked pastrami sandwiches, Barbados-style roti, octopus pastor marinated in a jet black recado, Peruvian lomo saltado tacos, rotisserie-roasted murgh makhani and Zacatecan burritos rolled in handmade flour tortillas.

Heading northeast, past streetside stands and trucks advertising menudo, pupusas, tejate, hibachi steak, koobideh kebab and roadside chicken grilled over open flames, a loose queue of families is forming outside Elite Restaurant in the Chinese-concentrated city of Monterey Park, hungry for the cavalcade of Cantonese dim sum that will soon be spread across their round tables.

In a metropolis encompassing 88 cities and a near infinite number of neighborhoods, the culinary tapestry of Los Angeles is united by more treasures, currents and paradoxes than the city has freeway exits.

In Hollywood, far from any scenery typical to its image on the screen, a Russian Orthodox church sitting high on a hill is slowly being encircled by Slavic home cooks eager to sell their borscht, pirozhki and vatrushka to the soon-to-be-released congregants.

Los Angeles Food Scene

A world away west, towards L.A.’s coast, a young DREAMer Angeleno named Rudy Barrientos parks his taco truck in the center of posh Pacific Palisades. It’s the same truck some neighbors called the police on when he first appeared, but a greater number would enthusiastically embrace, turning his Gracias Señor into a local gem certainly more highly prized than the nearby Chipotle, and helping send the chef to college along the way.

In a metropolis encompassing 88 cities and a near infinite number of neighborhoods, the culinary tapestry of Los Angeles is united by more treasures, currents and paradoxes than the city has freeway exits.

It is a bastion of plant-based diets, personal chefs, year-round farmers markets and sustainable lifestyles whose sidewalks are simultaneously saturated with birria de res, slow-and-low Texas-style brisket and charcoal-kissed carne asada.

A mecca of celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Nobu Matsuhisa and sizzling million-dollar restaurants from out-of-state imports can often be overshadowed by the draw of a singular street taco, cannabis-centric dinner party, viral noodle-pull or edible street sensation – given its fame on Instagram and food blogs.

Los Angeles Food Scene

L.A. is an urban core that has given birth to phenomena like the French dip, chili burger, Thai chicken pizza, Korean taco and, quite possibly, the globe’s very first cheeseburger, launching them on their paths to worldwide domination.

It is an ever-fluctuating ecosystem sustained by immigrant enclaves offering genuine tastes of the home cooking and celebratory feasts they feel homesick for, with chefs like Walusimbi, Barrientos and Goat Mafia’s Garcia. It’s where first-generation sons and daughters aren’t afraid to shatter all the rules.

For although “fusion” may be the dirtiest of all gastronomic buzzwords in Los Angeles, recalling the 1980’s more flaccid attempts to merge cultures on the menus of famous western chefs, there’s no denying that L.A.’s melting pot expresses itself most prominently on the plate. While authenticity abounds in spades – from tacos filled with Nayarit-inspired whole suckling pig at David Delfin’s Los Sabrosos al Horno in Cudahy, to Persian lamb brain sandwiches at Westwood’s Atari or hand-pulled Chengdu zajiang noodles at Mian – this is a city where chefs and food entrepreneurs are not afraid to break with traditions to forge beguiling new recipes and hybrid classics.

Your typical L.A. eating aficionado is conversant in Little Saigon’s best pho and goi cuon (spring rolls), in Koreatown’s most diverse banchan and most authentic galbi jiim (braised short ribs) and in which mole among its Oaxacan destinations will change your life. A certain freedom reigns in Los Angeles that allows the foods of distinct cultures to influence each another and often, to merge into one.

Here is a city that never seems to shy away from bringing disparate influences together when they may please the palate or have a shot at viral fame – be it the three-cup Japanese abalone liver on a tasting menu at Jon Yao’s James Beard-nominated Kato in a Sawtelle strip mall; a well-sourced, well-plated piece of nigiri under a sliver of chile jalapeño; or a croque monsieur-inspired pupusa purchased on social media from René Coreas’ Walking Spanish in Alhambra.

While savvy tourists tend to flock just for the tacos – a decision we could never advise against –rewards abound for the intrepid adventurer willing to slow down and look behind non-descript doors as they’re putting miles on their odometer. Because one doesn’t always know when they’re passing the home-cum-culinary-haven of a local Ugandan community leader like Walusimbi. Or where a neighborhood Chinese restaurant may conceal a discrete menu offering Uyghur specialties. Or that they can dependably connect with a young Sinaloense in his San Fernando Valley apartment awaiting the next direct message on Instagram to exchange his bracing aguachile for your cold, hard cash.

Unless they look. And continue to look deeper.

At Culinary Backstreets, we’re here to lead you to the most dynamic eats in this massive, extensive city that finds itself united most closely by a surfeit of great eating. Be it the famous restaurant or innovative street chef doing something the country or world is yet to experience – or the low-key genius preserving and sharing the time-honored recipes of those that came before them.

Along the way, we’ll allow food to tell the story of L.A. past and present, from its famous innovations to the issues of gentrification, activism and appropriation surrounding upstart restaurateurs and neighborhood cooks trying to share a bite of their cultures from within long-established communities.

Arrange your napkins on your lap, and let’s get started.

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Hadley TomickiVitaly Belousov

Published on November 18, 2021

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