In most cases, a menu is a document that conveys the chef’s full vision. Sometimes, the written page can’t contain every idea, with verbal specials and late additions listed on walls. Secret, off-menu dishes also come with a certain caché, meaning you need to be in the know to unlock another level of dining. Consider this story your password.
Westsiders have experienced “quality forever” since 1947 at The Apple Pan, a U-shaped counter with red cushioned stools that Ellen Baker and husband Alan founded before Westside Pavilion was ever a fragment in a developer’s mind. Daughter Martha Gamble now runs the humble legend, which specializes in burgers, fries, and pie. The base model of their off-menu patty melt features a juicy quarter-pound patty with sweet grilled onions and a slice of sharp Tillamook cheddar on a choice of griddled white, wheat, or rye bread. You can also get a tuna melt, but tuna salad pales in comparison to beef.
10801 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A.
Josef Centeno, the Old Bank District’s culinary king, grew up in San Antonio, Texas. At Bar Amá, one of five restaurants he runs at the corner of 4th and Main Streets, he honors his heritage - and his grandmother Amá - with a menu of Tex-Mex classics like queso and enchiladas. Puffy tacos were listed on the opening menu, but have now attained need-to-know status. Puffy deep-fried corn tortillas come topped with crunchy shredded cabbage, kale mix, zippy tomato-based salmorejo salsa, and pine nut crumble. Primary ingredients include a choice of chicken, chorizo, lengua, picadillo, shrimp, or potato and burrata cheese.
Bar Amá, 118 W. 4th St., Downtown L.A.
Fogo de Chão is a Brazilian churrascaria that started in Rio Grande do Sul, inspired by meat-focused cowboy campfire cooking. The company has expanded considerably in the U.S. in the past decade. Beverly Hills welcomed the first Los Angeles branch in 2007, and Downtown L.A. joined the fiery fray in 2015. The Downtown branch houses a huge buffet and ostensibly serves 10 cuts of beef, chicken, lamb, and pork, but they actually have one more to give if you ask. Costela (beef ribs) are crisp-crusted, fatty, bone-in behemoths with a great savory quality. Your server will even leave the bone if you like.
800 S. Figueroa St., Downtown L.A.
Huckleberry, the fine casual restaurant from Zoe Nathan and husband Josh Loeb that debuted in 2009, generally has a line. Sometimes, it seems like customers are on a conveyer belt that wraps out the front door and through to the back door, considering how frequently people belly up to the tantalizing pastry counter. The overhead menu and prepared food cases don’t tell the entire story. Egg Huck Muffin, their off-menu breakfast sandwich, features a vivid fried egg, cheddar cheese, and crispy Niman Ranch bacon strips served between a sliced flaky maple bacon biscuit and drizzled with maple syrup.
1014 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica
Jitlada, the enduring southern Thai restaurant in east Hollywood, is known for two things: chef Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee’s spicy cooking, and his sister/partner Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong’s beyond welcoming hospitality. Sometimes, Jazz is able to break free from working the floor to prepare some of her own signature dishes, including an off-menu “Jazz Burger.” A patty of fresh-ground tri-tip is grilled and served on crisp iceberg lettuce with tomato, basil, red onion shavings, and spicy green Thai chilies. The finishing touch is an addictive yellow sauce made with a secret recipe, as an off-menu dish should be.
5233 ½ W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles
Redevelopment was an existential threat to Jun Won, the Koreatown restaurant that Jung Ye Jun founded in 1993 and son Jeff now runs. Thankfully, in 2016, the family found a new space in nearby Omni Plaza. Jun Won showcases traditional Korean décor and the same great comfort food. Pan-fried fish dishes are prepared with particular finesse, including two off-menu varieties. Sea trout is butterflied and served whole, sporting bronzed skin. White meat is easy to pry from bones. Sole is also spectacular, juicy, flaky, and sticky, with delicious frizzled edges that form during the pan-frying process.
414 S. Western Ave., Koreatown
In 2016, Chef Angelo Auriana and front of house partner Matteo Ferdinandi built on the success of The Factory Kitchen in Downtown L.A.’s Arts District by opening Officine BRERA. The name refers to a neighborhood in Milan, and the grand space serves some of L.A.’s best northern Italian food. Farinata is an off-menu, dinner-only chickpea pancake, supposedly based on chickpea batter that Roman soldiers used to bake on their shields, or so the legend goes. In this case, the pancake features a gritty, savory blend of ground chickpeas, olive oil, water, butter, salt, and cracked black pepper.
1331 E. 6th St., Downtown L.A.
Sami Othman, who grew up in New York and has a mother with New Orleans heritage, fused two proud culinary traditions by opening the first Orleans & York Deli in 2013 in Baldwin Hills with wife Maria. The family (kids included) have since added branches in Inglewood, Downtown L.A. and El Segundo. They have two large-format, off-menu shrimp dishes. Cajun Asian features a heap of delicately fried shrimp tossed in sweet spicy sauce and served with fresh-shucked avocado over steamed white rice. Shrimp Inspiration borders on a soup, with large shrimp partially submerged in a boldly flavored broth.
4454 W. Slauson Ave., Los Angeles
Located in the shadow of The Broad Museum, Otium is a destination Bunker Hill restaurant from Chef Timothy Hollingsworth and hit-makers Sprout Restaurant Group. Clearly, you won’t find basic short order French toast at a place this stylish. Their off-menu French toast arrives atop a grill in a cloched donabe. A server lifts the lid on this vessel tableside, unleashing smoke from alderwood and almond chips. Airy fried French toast nuggets with crisp coats join pork belly, maple cream, black truffle berry jam and tiny beet leaves with purple veins. The presentation might appear elevated, but the serving is substantial.
222 S. Hope St., Downtown L.A.
Siblings An, Phuong and Nathan replaced Four Cafe across from Park La Brea in 2016. Their Vietnamese café features a mural of a Saigon street scene, framed family photos on the walls, and Phuong’s husband Bernard Hoang in the kitchen. Pho Saigon Pearl features a balanced menu that somehow doesn’t have room for fried pho, aka bird’s nest (hu tieu xao dion). A deep-fried rice noodle nest comes with a choice of beef or veggie gravy. Shrimp, pork, chicken, or beef is your only other decision. Regardless, expect a cornucopia of sliced carrots, baby corn, broccoli, bok choy, mushrooms and onion strands. As a server said, “There’s really no right way of eating it. Cut it like a steak and dig in.” Dress with Sriracha and hoisin if you prefer to dial up the spice and umami.
519 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles