This article was originally published on AWOL
The restaurant game. Having been in LA for a total of five weeks, it’s something that I’m still trying to get my head (and mouth) around. The term ‘Californian Cuisine’ is something that’s been thrown around by almost every chef I’ve chatted food to, and since I’d never heard of this before I was pretty pumped to find out what it was.
The more I ate, listened and researched, the more I realised it was kinda similar to the phrase that us Aussies throw around to describe our cooking – “Modern Australian” (which I hate!), but in Cali it’s a tight bunch of cuisines that make up their multicultural base for cooking food.
In saying that, LA seems quite similar to home in that it’s a land of discovery, with no ties to traditions and having always been influenced by a migrant population. Combine that with the massive numbers of establishments that are constantly needing to improve and have a point of difference to stay afloat, and you’ve got a recipe for an interesting, creative and ever-evolving food scene.
From what I’ve seen in the limited time I’ve been there, there are a few main influences when it comes to flavours and techniques from around the globe. French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese and Japanese seem to make up the bones of the Cali Cuisine. But there’s also traces of Indian, Canadian, Vietnamese and Texan barbecue running through the veins of LA. All of this is driven by immaculate fresh produce, which there seems to be an abundance of.
All in all there’s a whole lot of deliciousness ready for the taking on the streets of California. Here are my five favourites.
#1 Son of a Gun
When I walked through the old red door into the dining room of Son of a Gun I was pleasantly surprised. The space was small and cosy with large chesterfield booths, the walls covered in antique fishing memorabilia including an actual rubber marlin on the wall. I loved it!
The seafood-heavy menu is solid and true to the Cali cuisine, taking flavours and techniques from around the globe. The Lobster Roll was ridiculously good. I’ve had so many ordinary lobby rolls in the past that I was reluctant to order it, but the perfectly cooked and seasoned lobster on a bed warm buttery brioche was on point. I was practically begging for more. Another standout was the Smoked Roe with Maple Mousse (full French, but balanced) which left my girlfriend running her finger around the bowl to mop up anything that remained. While it can add up to be a little on the pricey side (well, we did order a lot of dishes), it’s a great insight into the world of Californian Cuisine.
#2 Grand Central Market
Smack bang in the heart of Downtown LA off Broadway, Grand Central Market is any foodie’s heaven. There’s a plethora of permanent food stalls on offer owned and run by many of Cali’s top chefs. The scene is a giant food hall with plenty of space and seemingly endless options to dine. Like any market of its kind, there’s no shortage of juice and coffee bars, but obviously, it’s the food that blew my mind. I started at Wexler’s Deli. They serve classic Jewish deli food, specialising in hand-crafted pastrami and smoked fish sandwiches. I went for the classic Ruben Sandwich with house pickles and slaw. It changed my life. Best. Sandwich. Ever!
After that, something fresh was in order for my second helping so I stopped by La Tostaderíafor a classic ceviche smothered in Tapetao hot sauce. Then I rounded out the nearly perfect afternoon with two scoops of heaven – coconut-almond and cinnamon-churros ice cream from McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream. I’ll be back to give Eggslut and DTLA Cheese a work out. Grand Central Market really hit the spot. It’s a game changer!
These guys had me as soon as I checked out their website, not to mention theirMunchies episode. It just oozes what food should be about – it’s real, it’s tasty and it’s fun. They describe Badmaash as an Indian/gastro pub food with Downtown LA swag, and boy did they hit the nail on the head. I was lucky enough to sit down with the owners of Badmaash – brother Nakul and Pawan – and I instantly understood why the restaurant was booming.
They’re so passionate about delivering the full package to each and every diner that walks through their doors. With most uneducated people typecasting Indian as a super spicy cuisine that results in a 2am dashes for the nearest bathroom, the boys – with the help of their Indian father who is trained in both French and Italian cuisine – took up the challenge to set the record straight and show off what Indian food is all about. I was shouted a Badmaash banquet to sample their best dishes and it was nothing short of unreal. The food was well balanced, fresh, colourful and above all, ridiculously tasty. I recommend the Chicken Tikka Poutine (yeah, that’s right!) and the Butter Chicken Samosas. Oh and the Lamb Burger was up there with the best burger I’ve ever had. Actually, just try everything. You won’t be disappointed.
The name translates to “beast” in Italian and Bestia is nothing short of that. From the moment I walked into the bustling, fun, and – dare I say it – “cool” space, to the time I finished my last bite of Chocolate Tart with Salted Caramel, I got the feeling that the people behind Bestia had put thought into every little aspect and detail that makes up their restaurant. We sat at the bar (which is one of my favourite places to eat) and were greeted by a personable, clean-cut bartender. The tone for the evening was was casual yet personable, and the food was delicious.
The menu takes cues from Italy, broken up into Piatti Piccoli (small dishes), Antipasti, Pizze (pizza), Paste (pasta) and Dolci (sweets). Each dish read so frigging well that I had to restrain myself from ordering each item from the small plates and antipasti selections. The hype didn’t disappoint. The highlight was the Bone Marrow served with Spinach Gnocchi, using the chef’s recommendation to scoop the marrow from the bone and stir it through the dumplings – my first mouthful was a moment to remember. Bestia is number one on my LA eats list so far and if something beats it, I’ll be very surprised.
Another eatery I had to try after watching their Munchies episode was Pizzanista! It’s a step above your average everyday pizza bar, with a lot of thought going into the little things that make up the perfect slice. I’ll start with the base: a New York-style thin crust which uses 200-year-old sourdough mothers from Naples that produce a fluffy, pillow-like interior complemented by just the right amount of crunch on the outer layer. Perfect! It’s all well and good to have a base as authentic as this, but it all falls down if the toppings don’t hit the mark. The great news is that the toppings are made from the freshest local produce, including hand-milled marinara sauce from the finest Califoania tomatoes.
The atmosphere is busy but casual – most people find somewhere to stand to smash their slice of choice. I went for my go to – pepperoni. In my eyes, you can rate a pizza joint by how good their pepperoni is. I also chose something that was outside my comfort zone – The Mac and Cheese Sunday Special. I must say that with a complimentary squirt of Sriracha sauce (another beautiful touch), the pepperoni was faultless. The Mac and Cheese was obviously tasty and worth a try, but I’d probably choose something more traditional next time. Don’t forget to check out the pizza boxes – they frequently collaborate with international skateboarding brands like Vans and Emerica to customise the artwork on the box.