Eating in the city of Angels is always exciting, with new restaurants and pop-ups continuously appearing and long-time restaurants still holding their own. Cliché as it may sound, Los Angeles is a true melting pot of cuisines where you can find food from pretty much every corner of the globe, as well as a new generation of third-culture chefs creating dishes inspired by their experiences growing up in a global city like L.A. It was no easy task to narrow our choices down, but these are the memorable meals that made it onto our Los Angeles Best Bites list for 2023.
Thai Caesar Salad at Poltergeist
I never thought one of my favorite bites of the year would be a Caesar salad, but here we are. Diego Argoti’s Thai Caesar salad at Poltergeist, a long-term pop-up inside the arcade bar Button Mash, is certainly no traditional Caesar salad. Instead of Romaine lettuce, he uses friseé interspersed with fresh basil. The dressing is made by blending lemongrass oil, lime leaves, anchovies and pickled mustard seeds. In lieu of croutons, Argoti tops the salad with rice puff crackers that have been sprinkled with parsley and blue fenugreek powder. The first time I took a bite containing a basil leaf was a revelation – from the texture to the strong umami flavors of the dressing, to the fragrance that came from the basil, lemongrass and lime leaves. – Fiona Chandra
Kashmiri Duck Birria Taco at Baar Baar
Downtown’s Baar Baar didn’t just bring the same contemporary Indian food from its New York City counterpart to L.A.; rather, Chef Sujan Sarkar has created some dishes specifically for the Los Angeles location, inspired by the city. One of those might just be the best on the menu: the kashmiri duck birria taco. The duck meat is braised with various ingredients including allspice, cardamom and different chilies. It’s served inside a perfectly griddled corn tortilla with a side of smoky consommé that was cooked using garam masala and other spices. It’s a taco that Los Angeles is sure to love. – Fiona Chandra
Surf and Turf Taco at Del Mar Ostioneria
Great tacos are abundant in Los Angeles, but still Del Mar Ostioneria’s opening was an exciting one. The food truck parks in a strip mall parking lot in Mid City, and they’re slinging high end Sinaloan seafood with a Japanese flair (the chef and co-owner, Francisco Leal, once owned a sushi restaurant in La Paz). The aguachiles and ceviches are great, but so are the tacos. The surf and turf taco starts with handmade blue corn tortilla, sliced filet mignon and lobster that is wrapped in crispy cheese, then topped with sliced guacamole and crispy fried leeks. It’s a decadent taco, to be sure, but one bite will show why Del Mar’s popularity is well deserved. – Fiona Chandra
Prawn and Oyster Perloo at Joyce
Perloo is a rice-based lowcountry dish, commonly found around Charleston and Savannah, and Joyce, the new Southern seafood restaurant in downtown, is perhaps the only place to find this in Los Angeles. The origin of this one-pot rice dish comes from West Africa, but the name came from the word “pilaf” or “pilau.” The version that chef Samuel Monsour serves up at Joyce is made with Carolina gold rice, house-smoked chorizo, black tiger prawns and oysters in a lobster-and-tomato broth. It’s served in a sizzling cast iron skillet to keep each bite hot. – Fiona Chandra
Tacos al Vapor at Tacos el Toro
With a constant ear to the ground for the best tacos in L.A., I rarely get surprised. But I got caught unaware when visiting Tacos El Toro, and they had me returning all year long for their estilo al vapor (steam-style) tacos of exceptional but uncommon proteins. Hidden away under a canopy in a backyard of East L.A., chef Benjamin Padilla shows confidence in his menu by using cow parts that the food industry typically discards such as beef cabeza, labio, lengua and cachete (head meat, lip, tongue and cheek).
With over twenty years of experience as a taquero starting in Jalisco, Mexico, Benjamin chops flavorfully seasoned meats fresh for every order. Each cut melts in your mouth as the meat is extremely moist and tender from its steam bath. The corn tortillas are smaller than normal, griddled for strength and then steamed atop chunks of meat for extra flavor. After loading each with tons of green salsa, I eat these smaller tacos in one bite for a burst of flavor and gluttonous satisfaction, knowing I’ve had one of the best tacos in the world. – Ulysses Salcido
Chocolate Forest Einspener at Damo Tea House
With a modern minimalist design on par with a museum setting and tea crafted like fine art, one of my favorite drinks of the year is the matcha-and-cacao flavored Chocolate Forest Einspener from Damo Tea House in Koreatown. In my two years as a Culinary Backstreets guide, I’ve embraced an understanding in the fundamentals of Chinese teas from one of our tour stops, Steep L.A. Gaining confidence to seek out new tea variations across the city, I also tried the roasted matcha (called hojicha) – a silky-smooth sweet tea with a smoky aftertaste.
Both the matcha and hojicha can be prepared with a thick topping of rich whipped cream, which Damo calls its “einspener,” inspired by a traditional einspänner (a double espresso with whipped cream, a drink of choice in Vienna). A sip of this tea will leave behind a creamy mustache, but if you stir in the cream with a straw, it creates an entirely new experience of texture and umami. Although I was once intimidated by ingredients and flavors that were unfamiliar, the drinks taste like a sophisticated version of a sweet latte or boba tea. And don’t worry, the staff won’t mind helping you as you try to pronounce words like hojicha or einspener – you’ll have plenty of practice as you come back again and again. – Ulysses Salcido
Tostada de Remolacha y Pollo at El Chapin 502
At the Guatemalan Night Market near downtown L.A. on 6th and Bonnie Brae, you can find a bustling intersection of outdoor food vendors and their mobile kitchens cooking freshly made traditional Guatemalan foods seven nights a week. Amongst the sounds of kids, music and conversations in Spanish and Mayan languages are food vendors announcing their menu out loud to a constant flow of customers. Overpowering them all is Julio, co-owner of El Chapin 502, who yells, “Vendemos tostadas, tortas, ceviches, tamales!”
Julio’s call drew me into an eye-catching display of tostadas – crunchy, flat tortillas – topped with remolacha con pollo, or diced beets with chicken salad, garnished with cabbage, carrots and onion for contrasting colors and texture. Coming from a Mexican background, I am used to the ground beef and potato version of a tostada with diced tomato and lettuce. But here, the beets are the star: fresh, subtle and crisp, paired with savory chicken salad dressed in mayonnaise and green hot sauce. Easily mistaken for a trendy farm-to-table plate in neighboring Hollywood, this Guatemalan dish is a favorite for this year, and forever. – Ulysses Salcido
Spicy Cold Noodle Soup at Jinsol Gukbap
Venturing off the beaten path from some of L.A.’s more popular Korean barbecue staples, I indulged in a new favorite comfort food this year in Koreatown, the bibim naengmyeon (spicy cold noodle soup) at Jinsol Gukbap. This dish is part of a family of Korean cold noodle soups characterized by an icy-cold broth and long strands of chewy, thin buckwheat noodles. The spicy version still uses cold noodles but has much less broth and is covered in a sweet chili glaze.
My extra-large portion of dark sticky spicy noodles was served hidden under fresh cucumber, daikon, pork and a boiled egg. It is recommended to mix all the ingredients together followed by spicy mustard and vinegar, pairing each bite with many of the banchan offerings on the table for a variety of textures. With plenty of water breaks in between, I had time to notice that it wasn’t just the food that made me enjoy this bite of the year; it was also the loud, festive atmosphere of customers enjoying Korean comfort food, shots of soju, and good company. – Ulysses Salcido
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Published on December 12, 2023