Eat This Now: LA’s 30 Essential Dishes

By Lesley Balla  |  January 23, 2017
Credit: Lesley Balla/Charcoal

If the question "where should we eat and what should we get?" is always popping up, here's a roundup of dishes that are making LA one of the best food cities in the country right now. Included on this list are perennial dishes from long-standing favorites, as well as unique new creations found at upcoming hot spots. Eat on, LA!

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Black barley hot pot at The Mar Vista
    The menu at this Westside newcomer is all about Los Angeles — the flavors, ingredients, neighborhoods and cultural mash-ups born here. Among fresh seasonal salads with shaved vegetables, Turkish meatballs on cinnamon sticks and grilled flank steak with black beans and grilled green tomatoes, this cauldron of spice and California-grown black barley is a standout. It comes to the table boiling like the devil, and the chile de arbol has some kick, but it's comforting and rich, topped with lacy tempura rapini.

    12249 Venice Blvd.; 310-751-6773

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Cucumbers at Kismet
    Not only is this one of the prettiest new salads to hit the scene, but it's a perfect example of what Sarah Hymanson and Sara Kramer are doing at their white-hot Los Feliz Mediterranean-inspired spot. Twirls of fresh, crisp Persian cucumbers and (while in season) persimmons, plus housemade lebneh and za'atar studded with parsley seeds. It's a unique twist and perfect for a light bite.

    4648 Hollywood Blvd.; 323-409-0404

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Egg yolk gnocchi at Ink
    Michael Voltaggio has taken his Melrose restaurant through some changes over the last year, including making the menu more steakhouse-minded. But some of the side dishes from the early days remain, only with a few twists. The egg yolk gnocchi is still a stunner, the little pastas filled with yolks that pop as soon as they hit your tongue. Surprising and delicious, they're served in a French onion broth with tiny croutons for texture. Pure delight.

    8360 Melrose Ave.; 323-651-5866

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Cabbage at Charcoal Venice
    Have you ever seen cabbage look so beautiful? At Josiah Citrin's casual-but-chic Westside spot, whole heads are baked in embers, rendering the outside layers charcoal-black. Once you get to the supple inside, it's sweet and tender, and perfect with a dot of sumac-lemon yogurt. This is a must with anything else you order here, although going in just for the cabbage isn't unheard of.

    425 Washington Blvd.; 310-751-6794

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Mesquite-grilled meats at Salazar
    This rainy winter has been rough on the mostly outdoor restaurant, but even on a cooler day or night, the colorful Frogtown patio is a great spot for Mexican staples and cocktails. The mesquite grill is the centerpiece of Esdras Ochoa's kitchen, and he knows how to use it. Among the meats served on wooden planks with housemade flour or corn tortillas, salsa and charred onions and peppers, there's flat iron steak, a juicy pork chop and even a whole fish. Don't forget to make use of the fleur de sel.

    2490 Fletcher Dr.

  • Credit: @conradeats/Instagram

    Churro croissant at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse
    While the cream-filled donuts, cruffins (croissant-muffin hybrids) and “I Got Baked in Los Angeles” neon sign get the most play on Instagram, this cinnamon- and sugar-dusted croissant is the unsung hero. First, it’s a very well made pastry, with buttery layers and a shattering, sweet exterior. But then it’s also stuffed with dulce de leche ​— because why not? It’s the reason to go, but make sure you do so after the morning rush.

    111 S. Ave. 59; 323-739-0473

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Beef tartare at Destroyer
    Chef Jordan Kahn has ditched the tweezers and terrariums he favored at Red Medicine for breakfast and lunch standards with a twist at this new Culver City restaurant. Much like the space itself, which is hidden among the architect, film and design firms of the Hayden Tract, there’s an element of surprise with every dish. The beef tartare, for instance, is a blend of meat and grains shrouded in a blanket of translucent radish slices, nasturtiums and herbs — pretty on the surface with substance underneath.

    3578 Hayden Ave.

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Kimchi fried rice at Baroo
    When Kwang Uh helped open this hidden gem, he called it his "freestyle experimental kitchen," with seasonal, often organic, grain and vegetable bowls amped up with unusual flavor and ingredient combinations. While Uh has taken a sabbatical in Korea, chef-partner Matthew Kim continues the mission. It takes a lot to make this kimchi fried rice so good — seaweed, sous-vide egg, purple potato chips, koji powder, pineapple — but it all ends up working. It's so eye-opening, Bon Appétit named it Dish of the Year in 2016.

    5706 Santa Monica Blvd.; 323-819-4344

  • Credit: Rachel Jacobson

    Meringue gelato at Kali
    This dessert is the sleeper hit of the Larchmont Village restaurant. It came about when chef Kevin Meehan was playing around with sweet cured egg yolk for a number of dishes, and since he had whites leftover, he made meringue. But he didn't stop there — he turned the meringue into gelato and topped the scoop with a shower of golden, sweet, salty cured egg. It's a little bit sweet and a little bit savory.

    5722 Melrose Ave.; 323-871-4160

  • Credit: Cassia

    Pot au feu at Cassia
    On the surface chef Bryant Ng's pot au feu blends a perfect balance of French and Vietnamese cuisine with traditional ingredients such as short ribs, bone marrow, beef consommé, potatoes and carrots. But what makes this dish truly stand out is the hint of cinnamon and star anise in the broth, the walnut mustard and the handful of fresh herbs like mint and Thai basil on top. It's just what you want during the cooler winter months.

    1314 Seventh St.; 310-393-6699

  • Credit: Night + Market Song

    Fried chicken sandwich at Night + Market Song
    Chef Kris Yenbamroong is known for his spicy, authentic Thai dishes, but with this sandwich, he combines his ancestral heritage with his LA upbringing. Fried to a golden crunchy brown, the juicy chicken thighs are topped with jalapeño, cilantro, shredded green papaya salad with lime and fish sauce, and good old-fashioned ranch dressing. You'll find it on the lunch menu.

    3322 Sunset Blvd.

  • Credit: Zagat

    Sorrel pesto grain bowl at Sqirl
    This rice bowl — made with Kokuho Rose brown rice, nut-free sorrel pesto, preserved Meyer lemon, Jessica Koslow's dynamite hot sauce, feta and a poached egg — blazed the trail for so many other grain and rice bowls in LA. If you think making the dish would be easier than waiting in line, you can find the recipe in Koslow's new cookbook, Everything I Want To Eat.

    720 N. Virgil Ave.; 213-394-6526

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Butternut squash at Bar Moruno
    While the original Moruno was short-lived at the Original Farmers Market, the bar and counter at the Grand Central Market features a condensed menu of the restaurant's greatest hits. The butternut squash has been a standout from day one, the whole squash roasted and grilled, then doused with brown butter and housemade dukkah, a Middle Eastern condiment made with sesame seeds, cashews and spices. It's unexpected and extremely addictive.

    317 S. Broadway

  • Credit: Andrea Alonso/GCM

    The Fairfax at Eggslut
    Chef Alvin Cailan was once roaming the streets in a beat-up food truck, and now he's a culinary force to be reckoned with. Eggslut has multiplied since those food truck days, with the Downtown stand that still garners the longest lines at the Grand Central Market, a Vegas outpost at The Cosmopolitan, and now in Venice. We'll say this: The wait is always worth it, especially for The Fairfax, perfectly cooked, soft-scrambled eggs, with chives, cheddar cheese, caramelized onion and sriracha mayo on a warm brioche bun. Add the sausage or bacon.

    317 S. Broadway, Downtown
    1611 Pacific Ave., Venice

  • Credit: Clay Larsen

    Charcuterie at Gwen
    Curtis Stone has proven he’s more than a TV chef at both Maude and his latest, Gwen, a meat-centric spot he and his brother Luke debuted this year. There’s an abridged menu for the bar and patio, which is open to walk-ins. With the butcher shop being an essential part of the restaurant, the housemade charcuterie is a requisite bite. Offerings change regularly, but there might be blackstrap molasses ham, 'nduja or leek ash. The porcini salumi has been a menu staple since the restaurant’s debut. 

    6600 Sunset Blvd.; 323-946-7512

  • Credit: Jakob Lyman

    Nashville hot chicken at Howlin’ Ray’s
    Yes, the line is long. Yes, the hours are limited. But for a taste of true Nashville-style chicken, this is the best in town. What was once a popular food truck is now a brick-and-mortar spot in Chinatown's Far East Plaza, offering just enough room to order Johnny Zone's crispy, spicy fried chicken by the piece, as a box of wings, or in a sandwich. The French Laundry alum makes it as hot as you want it, from country (no heat) to howlin' (smoldering, scale-tipping heat).

    727 N. Broadway

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Focaccia di Recco at Chi Spacca
    ​Yes, this is the meatiest arm of the Mozza compound, where hunks of beef and pork are grilled right in front of you. But this non-meat dish is the one your server will suggest at the beginning of the meal, and you’d be crazy not to try it. It’s one of those things Nancy Silverton obsessed over after discovering it on one of her trips to Italy. After returning, she sent her chef de cuisine to the town of Recco to learn how to properly stretch the paper-thin dough over balls of cow’s milk cheese. The piping hot, crackly cheese bread gets a drizzle of really good olive oil and a sprinkle of salt before it's sent to the table. It’s truly sublime.

    6610 Melrose Ave.; 323-297-1133

  • Credit: Bestia

    Roasted bone marrow at Bestia
    As often as chef Ori Menashe changes the menu at this still white-hot Arts District restaurant, the bone marrow with spinach gnocchetti remains — and for good reason. Meaty, rich, caramelized marrow gets scraped onto a pile of handmade pillowy pasta, then tossed with crispy breadcrumbs and aged balsamic. It's one of the best bites in LA.

    2121 E. 7th Place; 213-514-5724

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Dana’s Matzo Ball Soup at Wexler’s Deli
    Upon opening the second location of Wexler’s, chef Micah Wexler looked homeward to recreate this comforting Jewish dish. Affectionately named Dana's Matzo Ball Soup after his mom, it's the essence of simplicity — just good chicken, rich broth, chunks of carrots, parsnips and other root vegetables, dill and a sprinkle of crunchy gribenes (crackling chicken skin). The matzo balls are light as air. Locals talk about the pastrami and smoked fish from the deli Downtown; now they'll talk about this soup. It's only available on the Westside.

    616 Santa Monica Blvd.; 424-744-8671

  • Credit: Republique

    Roast chicken at Republique
    People who think ordering roast chicken in a restaurant is boring have never had this organic rotisserie bird, a Walter Manzke staple. A simple, classic dish in the hands of a master becomes almost ethereal in its perfection. He doesn’t do anything fancy to the bird itself — it’s brined for a day, air-dried, then turned over a fire-fueled spit until it’s perfectly tender and juicy — but it’s still the stuff that dreams are made of, served with fingerling potatoes, black kale and chicken jus. Perfect for sharing. 

    624 S. La Brea Ave.; 310-362-6115​

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Smoked bucatini carbonara at Rose Cafe-Restaurant
    This bucatini is pure Jason Neroni, a creation that utilizes artisan craftsmanship (the pasta is made in house) and ingenuity. When you take a bite, you think the smokiness comes from the chunks of bacon in the rich and creamy sauce, but it's in the pasta itself; the noodles are cold-smoked before cooking. The process adds a layer of flavor and earthiness that takes the classic Italian dish to new levels. The texture is thick and al dente, the coarseness capturing every drip of Parmesan and egg — yes, that gorgeously golden runny egg — and cracked pepper. Any carbonara is a decadent treat, yet this one surpasses most.

    220 Rose Ave.; 310-399-0711

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Tacos at Guerrila Tacos
    Chef Wes Avila is not just another guy slinging al pastor. He's worked in kitchens with Alain Ducasse, Walter Manzke and Octavio Becerra, and now serves an ever-evolving menu with unique concoctions of stewed or grilled meats, locally grown vegetables, seafood, fresh salsas and handmade tortillas. It’s hard to pick a favorite, because the menu changes based on inspiration and the ingredients Avila picks up that week, but the roasted sweet potato with almond chile, fried corn and feta cheese has become a staple. This is road food, LA-style.

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Omelet at Petit Trois
    ​Making an omelet is not easy. Making one that food lovers everywhere obsess over is even more difficult. Thanks to Ludovic Lefebvre, who's gone from pop-ups to TV show to restaurant empire, this thin, crêpe-like beauty is tender and perfect, practically melting at every bite. It's simply filled with Boursin cheese, which adds a rich and creamy layer. Don't watch the chefs prepare it if you're afraid of butter. Do pair it with a glass of rosé.

    718 N. Highland Ave.

  • Credit: Din Tai Fung

    Soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung
    To most local XLB experts, the xiao long bao from this growing chain are the barometer for all soup dumplings. The original location closed in Arcadia and moved to newer, more glamorous digs at the Westfield Santa Anita mall, but the dumplings haven't changed, with thin, delicately pleated wrappers and juicy pork and soup in every bite. If you're in the mood for a splurge, there's also an outpost in Glendale that features some amazing black truffle dumplings.

    400 S. Baldwin Ave.; 626-446-8588

  • Credit: Dylan + Jeni/Broken Spanish

    Chicharrón at Broken Spanish
    This Downtown restaurant is chef Ray Garcia's ode to his Latin upbringing and classic culinary training. It’s Mexican cuisine with a contemporary spin, and dishes are often rooted in tradition. The chicharrón, for example, is slow-cooked before being deep fried, capturing the essence of the dish while also transforming it. Served with a bright garlic mojo, it’s nothing like what you’d find at the carniceria, but still utterly delicious.

    1050 S. Flower St.; 213-749-1460

  • Credit: Tsujita

    Tsukemen ramen at Tsujita
    ​In a city that’s brimming with ramen, Tsujita still sits at the top for its tsukemen (dipping noodle) and Hakata-style tonkontsu ramen. Even with the Annex across the street, the Sawtelle stalwart garners endless lines for its chewy noodles and slow-simmered broths. 

    2057 Sawtelle Blvd.; 310-231-7373

  • Credit: Jeremy Fox

    Pozole verde at Rustic Canyon
    Jeremy Fox, who took over the reins at the Santa Monica wine bar in 2013 and is helping celebrate the restaurant’s 10th anniversary this year, has kept a steady beat changing his ultra-seasonal menus. One dish, however, has been a constant: the pozole verde, with a bright-green broth that has just enough kick to make you want more. There’s plump and hearty Rancho Gordo hominy, perfectly cooked clams and/or mussels, and shredded tortillas on top. It was one of the first dishes the chef put on the menu, and it'll probably never go out of style.

    1119 Wilshire Blvd.; 310-393-7050

  • Credit: Mary Costa

    Rigatoni at Sotto
    Sotto is one of those hidden gems that we really want to keep to ourselves but can't because it's that good. Chef Steve Samson has been serving the rigatoni with chicken liver ragù since the restaurant opened. At first, it was simply to utilize all parts of the animal — he and his cooks had lots of leftover chicken livers — but he managed to turn it into something special. Tossed with mushrooms, saba and lemon, it's a soul-warming dish, every bite earthy and wonderfully balanced. 

    9575 W. Pico Blvd.; 310-277-0210

  • Credit: Sugarfish

    The Nozawa at Sugarfish
    Yes, our city is filled with amazing sushi options. But Sugarfish stands out as the driving force behind fast-casual sushi, words we thought we'd never want to see together. By stripping away certain formalities of a traditional sushi bar — like even having a sushi bar — the experience is all about the fresh fish, good rice and housemade soy sauce. We like the Nozawa for the amount of food you get at a really great price. The same exacting standard that Kazunori Nozawa followed at his beloved Studio City sushi bar is what's carrying him (and his son and team) to New York for his first outpost there.

    Multiple locations

  • Credit: Ryan Tanaka

    Chocolate pie at Odys + Penelope
    After wowing us at Hatfield's and The Sycamore Kitchen, Karen Hatfield has gone rustic with her desserts at Odys + Penelope. It matches the menu and vibe that she and husband Quinn have created for the spot, and it's in line with the way people are eating around LA right now. Simple is good, but simple is not always easy. It takes a lot of skill to make a chocolate pie look rich and dense, but turns out to be creamy and light, with a hearty rye crust to balance it out. It usually disappears before anyone can even Instagram it.