Los Angeles City Guide

GT’s chief restaurant critic eats his way through LA
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A sunny, dare I say almost Australian flavour has been infiltrating the United States in recent years and it’s most visible, naturally enough, in Los Angeles. Squint your eyes at some of the better breakfast menus in town and you might almost be able to kid yourself that you’re in a lesser-known back-street of Bondi, albeit one populated with whiter teeth and more aggressively upbeat service.

It’s the brave and the bold breakfaster who chooses to hit Sqirl after eight; by then the Silver Lake hordes have descended, clamouring for SoCal-savvy rice bowls and fancy toast of a higher order. For something considerably more off the beaten track, consider a visit to South Central (the Watts Towers are just around the corner, sightseers) and the Los Angeles branch of Locol. It’s a budding franchise from restaurateur and taco-truck king Roy Choi and San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson designed to bring good, tasty food to impoverished neighbourhoods. The prices are low, the flavour-factor is high.

Driving the resurgence of the Downtown food scene, meanwhile, is the Grand Central Market, home to vendors of note both old and new. Hit G&B for what might possibly be the best coffee in town, and then wander over to the counter at Wexler’s Deli for a smoked-fish plate to be reckoned with. And then there’s Baroo. Set back on a strip mall on Santa Monica Boulevard under a faded old sign which just barely reads “Thai Noodle”. Baroo isn’t Thai, though, and it doesn’t specialise in noodles. What it does can’t really be easily categorised; chef Kwang Uh is from Korea, and uses Korean ingredients and ideas, but is just as likely to draw in his experience cooking in Copenhagen (he staged at Noma) or in Italy or Spain as he is Seoul. Take his kimchi fried rice, which Bon Appétit magazine just named its top American dish of the year: kimchi and seaweed are in the mix, but the kimchi is fermented with pineapple, the rice is basmati, purple potato chips and toasted buckwheat bring the crunch, and the whole thing is fragrant with gremolata and pineapple jalapeño salsa. If there are linking themes here, in this humble, inspiring eatery, it’s ferments and nourishment. The shelves are stocked with tubs and jars of wild pickled seeds, black garlic, tepache and kombucha (elderflower! rose and passionfruit! lemon verbena and yuzu!), and the vibe is one of discovery and delight.

In terms of staging, Broken Spanish is a very different beast: a highly polished operation, beautifully styled, from the superb drinks, organised neatly under headings like “refreshing shaken cocktails”, to the brightly painted clay jugs that hold the water. But to assume that Ray Garcia’s Los Angeles-Mexican cooking has had the oomph art-directed out of it would be a grave error. That camote, a poached purple potato, might be dressed with verjus, chives, chilli and parsley, but it gets its porky wallop from chopped roasted pig snout and tail. Not in the mood for pig extremities? No problem: there’s just as much flavour going on in the perfectly vegetarian tostada topped with carrot escabeche, broad beans and pea salsa verde.

Meanwhile, over on Koreatown, another celebration of Angeleno food culture. Pot, a newish venture from Roy Choi, puts the spotlight on American-Korean dining, framing it in a sprawling space off the lobby of a boutique hotel. Hip-hop thumps from the speakers, the drinks are listed on the menu as “dranks”, and the menu is peppered with dish names such as “sticky icky” and “that fish cray”: it’s a scene. As with Broken Spanish, though, the slick setting at The Line doesn’t mean the food has surrendered its gutsiness; being offered a bib and a whole roll of kitchen towel when you sit down can only be a good omen. The hotpots seethe with chilli and bean paste, while the “beep beep” translates to a rice bowl crammed with torched sea urchin, mayo and yuzu. Keep it weird, LA – we love you.

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