Books

11.16.13

Why Los Angeles Is the Best Food Town in America

What’s turned Los Angeles into a culinary boomtown? Chef Roy Choi and New Yorker staff writer Dana Goodyear know.

If you want to fall in love with Los Angeles, have a meal with Roy Choi and Dana Goodyear. That should do it.

On paper Choi and Goodyear have little in common. Choi was born in South Korea and raised in Southern California; poor in Koreatown, better off in Anaheim, prosperous in Coto de Caza. Goodyear comes from WASPier, wider ranging stock: Princeton, Cleveland, London, Bethesda, St. Louis, New York, and finally, a few years ago, the upscale bohemia of Venice Beach. She is a poet, teacher, and New Yorker staff writer, educated at St. Paul's and Yale. He went to Cal State Fullerton for awhile, then sold mutual funds, then became the chef behind the mobile Korean taco empire known as Kogi BBQ.

Both Choi and Goodyear have written new books about food. Choi’s L.A. Son is a hard-knock memoir salted with nostalgic recipes. On one page Choi is writing about the gangs he joined as a teenager, the week he spent on crack, or the year he lost to gambling; on the next page he’s telling you how to make something called Ketchup Fried Rice. Goodyear’s Anything That Moves, meanwhile, is a collection of urbane dispatches about the insect-eating, raw-milk-drinking, offal-exalting obsessives on the front lines of 21st-century American food culture. They’re rarely mentioned in the same sentence, and understandably so.

Yet these two books are alike in one crucial way. Despite their differences, Choi and Goodyear have, it seems, come to the same conclusion about the place where they live, work, and eat. They both think that Los Angeles, long maligned as a culinary backwater, is the best food city in America.

I happen to agree.  

*** 

In June I loaded up my ancient BMW and drove from Brooklyn to L.A. I’d lived in New York City for nearly a decade. I loved New York City. But my wife and I had decided to move on. When people asked why, and they asked why a lot, I told them that her family was from Southern California, that we couldn’t envision having children in Brooklyn, that we wanted a house with a yard instead of a 600-square-foot apartment, and that work was letting us, so why not? All of which was true. What I didn’t tell them is that I was also moving for the food.  

I got my first taste of L.A. in college, when I began to visit my future in-laws over Christmas break. I still ate like a teenager back then, so the meals that seduced me were not particularly sophisticated: the platonic ideal of a cheeseburger at Pie‘n Burger in Pasadena; the throwback gabacho tacos at Henry’s in North Hollywood. But I immediately sensed that there was something special about L.A. food.

After the crash of late 2008, many chefs lost their jobs. So they started food trucks, pop ups, or underground supper clubs instead.

Later I began to branch out on both coasts; my palate expanded in time with the whole Chowhound movement. I enjoyed tracking down the best banh mi in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and rooting out the best ma po tofu in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley. But there was a difference between how I ate in New York and how I ate in California.  

In New York, my outer-borough expeditions tended to be a sideshow; the main event was scoring a table at Brooklyn Fare, or beating the crowds to Battersby, or keeping tabs on whatever seasonal, chef-driven restaurant seemed most likely to supplant Brooklyn Fare and Battersby in next month’s Grub Street Power Rankings.

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‘L.A. Son’ by Roy Choi. 352 pp. Anthony Bourdain/Ecco. $30. ()

Out west, however, I never visited the most bestarred, expensive restaurants. Instead, the hunt—for far-flung ethnic joints, experimental trucks, ephemeral pop-ups, and underground supper clubs—took center stage. In L.A., the really exhilarant cooking was bubbling up from the bottom, not trickling down from the top. Even the chefs—the younger, more intriguing ones, at least—seemed to be unschooled, unofficial, improvisational. Street food and strange food were on the rise; mulitas and bulgogi were everywhere. And America—more Latino, more Asian, and more gastronomically adventurous than ever—seemed to be following suit.

“The food truck? L.A.,” Goodyear says. “Pop ups? L.A. Not the first underground restaurant, but I would say the perfection of that concept—L.A. L.A.’s beginning to export its culinary culture. I don’t think I would have written the book if I didn’t live in Los Angeles. I started to see the things I was seeing here elsewhere, and I realized that the deepest sources for those impulses in the broader food movement and culinary scene really could be traced to this place.”

But why? That’s what I wanted to know. So I invited Choi and Goodyear out to eat.

***

In person, Choi and Goodyear are about as similar as they are in print. Goodyear has blond bangs, a lean face, and a long, downturned mouth. When we meet at Bäco Mercat, a modish gastropub with a menu that “reads almost like a graduate exam in culinary poststructuralism, mixing flavors from Italy, France and western China, Georgia (U.S.) and Georgia (Eastern Europe), Tuscany and Peru,” she is wearing a thin black knit top and an interesting ropey necklace.  

Choi is also dressed in black for our meal: black Dodgers baseball cap, black kneelength shorts, and a black Pizzanista Cinco de Mayo t-shirt with a gold chain glinting under the collar. The restaurant he has chosen, BCD Tofu House, is only four-miles by freeway from Bäco Mercat, but it feels like another country: noisy Koreatown natives slurping from big, sputtering bowls of soon tofu stew. 

“The Korean lunch is different from the American lunch,” Choi says as we slide into a booth. “We don’t eat elongated lunches. It’s all about the food. All of these people in here? Out in 20 minutes.”

I look around. I am the only white guy in the restaurant. This, it turns out, is part of the reason why L.A.’s ethnic food—Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Indian, Guatemalan, El Salvadorean—is so delicious. “In New York, the taco places are almost always feeding an audience that is not Mexican,” Choi says. “But here, they’re making no concessions to you, and the food thrives because of that. They’re cooking from the heart. They’re not considering, ‘Uh, would that be too spicy?’ You’re just in their part of town. You are the one percent.”

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‘Anything That Moves’ by Dana Goodyear. 272 pp. Riverhead. $28. ()

The difference is geography. New York is a traditional metropolis: 8.3 million people crammed into about 300 square miles of gridded land. (Chicago and San Francisco are the same basic shape, only smaller.) Los Angeles, on the other hand, is much less dense: about 3.9 million people spread out over nearly 500 square miles. As a result there’s a lot more room to carve out ethnic enclaves, and to cook. “It’s a big place,” Choi tells me. “Real estate is not that expensive if you look around. It’s not like New York where you have to go out to the boondocks just to afford something. We’re like the old Manhattan—it’s still cheap in certain sectors. And even within the city core, we still have pockets that are hidden. That’s a kind of freedom.”  

L.A.’s distinctive mix of ethnic minorities is important, too. In New York, the prevailing food scene doesn’t typically draw its inspiration from the city’s massive immigrant community. In L.A., it does. Over a plate of Bäco Mercat’s head-on shrimp (pickled cauliflower, yuzu), Goodyear explains why. “The way that the European tradition has manifested in America has obviously give us so many amazing restaurants, so many amazing meals, so many amazing nights,” she says. “But it also has had a deadening effect. It’s been like a snuff around the candle a little bit, because it’s an import. It doesn’t come up from the broad base of immigrants.

“But LA is so far from Europe,” she continues. “Its geographic position between two major regions of historical necessity eating—Latin American and China—and the constant stream of migrants from those two regions have made this the bellwether city for food in America. And now that America’s institutions are faltering and we are starting to eat like survivors, L.A. chefs, out of a desire to experiment and be creative and entertain themselves, have stumbled upon these deeply resourceful cuisines as reference points.” 

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Customers wait in line in front of the Kogi BBQ truck near the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles. (Matt Sayles/AP, Matt Sayles)

The final ingredient, according to both Goodyear and Choi, is a certain L.A. looseness—a less hierarchical approach born of financial necessity and made possible by L.A.’s landscape, climate, and economy. After the crash of late 2008, many chefs—including Choi, who was working at a megarestaurant called RockSugar—lost their jobs. So they started food trucks, pop ups, or underground supper clubs instead. Parking wasn’t the same sort of problem it would have been in a less horizontal city. Storefronts were available for short-term lease. And L.A.’s vast creative class—“the graphic designers, the post-production guys, the grips, the editors, the animators,” as Choi puts it—had the flexibility and inclination to experiment. 

“The crumbling of the four walls of the restaurant that we see as something exciting and edgy and directional happening all over the country started to happen here first,” Goodyear says. “Now we’re seeing more food in the go-to restaurants with unofficial origins: chefs who didn’t go to school for it, who are getting their ingredients from weird places. Unofficial restaurant culture thrives in the absence of an overpowering official restaurant culture.” 

As my chopsticks pinch the last scraps of kimchi, I ask Choi if that rings true. “Absolutely,” he says. “For me, nothing was premeditated. A-Frame is all improvisation. Alibi. Sunny Spot. Chego. Every single one of them. That’s the thing about LA. Sometimes you open the curtain, you look outside and you say, “I’m going to the beach.” That was the last five years of my life. I’d open the curtain, look out, and go, ‘You want to open this restaurant with me?’”

***

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for five months now. I don’t miss Brooklyn at all. There aren’t as many clever new restaurants to choose from, but that’s OK. By the time I left New York, I’d started to suspect that the city was a certainty—that it knew what it was, and on some fundamental level, it was never going to change. But Los Angeles is still figuring itself out in many of the same ways America is figuring itself out. There’s a sense of flux and uncertainty and even possibility here that seems more in tune with the times, and it comes through in the food culture.

There is nothing in New York, for example, quite like Guisados, a homegrown Mexican-American minichain where rich stewed meats—cochinita pibil, chuleta, bistek en salsa roja—are dolloped onto thick, freshly patted corn tortillas, creating completely idiosyncratic tacos that are among the best I’ve ever tasted.

There is nothing in New York quite like Wolvesmouth, an underground supper club run by a skinny, long-haired 31-year-old named Craig Thornton, who serves his grateful guests—reservations take months or even years to secure—as many as 12 delicate, nearly abstract dishes like rabbit with poblano pepper, Monterey jack, sopapillas, zucchini, and compressed apple.

There is nothing in New York quite like Sqirl, a jam company turned makeshift futuristic hippie comfort-food café— Kokuho Rose Brown Rice Bowl: Sorrel Pesto (nut free), Preserved Meyer Lemon, Lacto Fermented Hot Sauce, Black Radish, French Sheep Feta, Poached Egg—that was founded by Jessica Koslow, a 32-year-old Long Beach native who talked her way into the kitchen of Atlanta’s best restaurant with no previous professional experience.

There is nothing in New York quite like Night + Market, the permanent street-food pop-up—isaan sour sausage, pork toro—that Kris Yenbamroong opened inside his parents’ old-school Thai restaurant on the otherwise food-deprived Sunset Strip.

There is nothing in New York quite like Alma, where 27-year-old Ari Taymor, another unschooled cook with an abundance of chutzpah, is making the most esoteric food this side of Mugaritz in a space that looks more like a temporary catering operation or improvised wine bar than the best new restaurant in America.

And there is nothing in New York quite like the endless Chinese expanse of the San Gabriel Valley, or the roadside al pastor spits that appear and then disappear alongside Olympic Boulevard, or the fiery strip-mall Thai joints scattered throughout the San Fernando Valley, or the delectable, alien food that can be found on every block of the city’s “league of little nations”: its Little Armenia, Little Bangladesh, Little Brazil, Little Ethiopia, Little Arabia, Little India, Little Russia, Little Persia, Little Phnom Penh, Little Saigon, Little Tokyo, Little Osaka, and so on.

Back at Bäco Mercat, the server clears our plates: the head-on shrimp; roasted nantes carrots with piquillo, idiazabal, and goat cheese; buttermilk fried quail with shishito peppers, feta, chile, and mojama; and “The Toron,” a sandwich of oxtail hash, cheddar tater, and horseradish yogurt enveloped by the restaurant’s namesake baco flatbread. I ask Goodyear how she would describe the food we just ate.

“It’s autobiographical,” she says as we get up to leave. “It draws from what is inspiring to one individual, not from a collective sense of ‘how is this dish made.’ There is no ‘this dish.’ None of these dishes would be on anyone else’s menu. Is this the advent of an American cuisine? Are we looking at American cuisine and we don’t know how to describe it because we’ve never thought that we had our own?”

Choi’s parting shot is less philosophical, but perhaps it’s more to the point. “Hey!” he shouts across the BCD Tofu House parking lot after we’ve turned to go our separate ways. “Welcome to L.A.!”