By Daniel Djang and Stacey Sun
For generations, Los Angeles chefs have created classic dishes like the chopped salad, French Dip and tuna tartare. L.A. chefs continue to be in the vanguard of the national culinary scene. Read on for the next generation of iconic dishes that are ready to take their place in the L.A. food pantheon.
Short Rib Taco - Kogi BBQ
The short rib taco served by the Kogi BBQ truck is the culinary mash-up that launched a thousand food trucks. Co-founded by chef Roy Choi, Kogi BBQ pioneered the multicultural menus and active social media presence used by food trucks across the country. The signature taco is made with double-caramelized Korean barbecue short rib, salsa roja made from Korean and Mexican chiles, cilantro-onion-lime relish and chili-soy Kogi slaw, all served over two crisp, griddled corn tortillas. In his cookbook/memoir L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, Choi describes the moment the now-iconic taco was created: “There it was. Los Angeles on a plate. Maybe it wasn’t everyone’s L.A., but it was mine. It was Koreatown to Melrose to Alvarado to Venice to Crenshaw crumpled into one flavor and bundled up like a gift. The elements looked like city blocks. The flavor tasted like the streets. And the look said home.” Choi has since opened several brick and mortar restaurants. If you’re looking for the taco that started it all, follow @kogibbq on Instagram or stop by Kogi Taqueria in Palms.
Xiao Long Bao - Din Tai Fung
It’s no exaggeration to say that the xiao long bao (soup dumplings) at Din Tai Fung are world-famous. The acclaimed Taiwanese restaurant chain has locations throughout Asia as well as Southern California, Washington and Australia. Dumpling makers train for months to learn how to quickly make the delicious pork dumplings. Customers can watch the dumpling-making process through a kitchen window - each location produces thousands of dumplings a day. The preferred dining technique varies, but most guests dip the dumplings in ginger-spiked black vinegar and eat them in one bite for a burst of hot, savory broth.
Din Tai Fung opened its first U.S. location in Arcadia in 2000 - it quickly became so popular that diners would wait for hours during peak times. To accommodate the demand, in 2008 a second location opened nearby. In September 2013, Din Tai Fung opened a location at The Americana at Brand in Glendale, which features a full bar and special truffle dumplings. The most recent L.A. location opened in March 2018 at Westfield Century City, which recently emerged from a $1-billion remodel.
Office Burger - Father’s Office
“Gourmet burger” was an oxymoron before chef-owner Sang Yoon debuted his Office Burger at the original Father’s Office on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. Yoon also helped usher “gastropub” into the American lexicon when he took over Father’s Office in 2000. The small bar was already an early leader in the burgeoning craft beer movement when Yoon introduced Spanish tapas-style bar bites to pair with the beer. However, it was the Office Burger that would attract national attention. With French onion soup as his inspiration, Yoon created a burger that caught everyone’s attention: a charbroiled patty of dry-aged chuck is topped with caramelized onion compote, applewood bacon, Gruyère and Maytag blue cheese, and arugula on a toasted demi-baguette. Traditionalists were divided about a fancy burger that was more like a steak sandwich. The Office Burger caused a sensation as much for its gourmet ingredients as for Yoon’s no-substitution policy. Plenty of restaurants have a non-modification policy these days, but Yoon got an earful for not even stocking ketchup, let alone allowing customers to add it to their burgers. The Office Burger earned praise from local and national media, including winning the “Today” show’s burger cook-off. In April 2008, Yoon opened Father’s Office 2.0 at the historic Helms Bakery complex in Culver City. The second location features a much larger space, full bar, an expansive patio, and the same policy of no substitutions, modifications or ketchup.
New Zealand Green Mussels - Jitlada
Discreetly located in a strip mall off Sunset Boulevard, Jitlada is beloved by locals, foodies and celebrities alike. The Southern Thai restaurant is helmed by the brother-sister duo of chef Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee and Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong, the gregarious general manager who stops by every table to check on guests. The huge menu spans 300 regional specialties, from coconut mango salad to Crying Tiger Beef and the fiery “wild” curry with eggplant, green beans, bone-in cuts of catfish and an avalanche of spicy chilies. Everyone has their favorite dishes, but the constant is the steamed New Zealand green mussels. The plump and succulent bivalves are cooked in an exceptionally flavorful lemongrass and basil broth, presented in a metal bowl and served with the house green chili sauce. After you’ve finished the mussels, ladle the remaining broth into bowls and slurp to your heart’s content.
Tacos de Camarón - Mariscos Jalisco
In his dineL.A. guide to L.A.’s best tacos, Javier Cabral writes, “No Los Angeles taco list can be complete without mentioning the simple, pocket-sized tacos de camarón at Mariscos Jalisco.” Fans from near and far make the pilgrimage to Raul Ortega’s Boyle Heights food truck, which is easily identified by its large logos and coastal landscape painting. Tortillas are stuffed with a secret mix of chopped shrimp, vegetables and spices, then fried until they’re crisp. Perfection is served on a Styrofoam plate, topped with slices of buttery avocado and drenched in a bright tomato salsa.
Galbi- Park's BBQ
Opened in 2003 by Jenee Kim, Park’s BBQ raised the bar for Koreatown restaurants and has been at the forefront of Korean barbecue restaurants in America ever since. While all-you-can-eat barbecue restaurants continue to open in K-town unabated, Park’s BBQ maintains its high standards of quality and unrivaled selection of meats. The sleek and modern interior features stainless hoods over each table and numerous photos of K-pop stars, American actors and pro athletes who frequent Park’s. The marinated meats and banchan are superb - Joshua Lurie notes in his guide to L.A.’s best galbi that Park’s BBQ carves “a diamond pattern in the meat, which maximizes tenderness. Wrap the results in lettuce with fermented bean paste, raw garlic and jalapenos, which pack a savory punch.”
Butterscotch Budino - Pizzeria Mozza
Pizzeria Mozza pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez took a deceptively simple concept - butterscotch pudding - and created a sublime dessert and a modern icon of the L.A. culinary scene. The Butterscotch Budino was on the opening menu of Nancy Silverton’s celebrated pizzeria in November 2006 and it’s been featured ever since. Narvaez’s creation is a multilayered experience - the creamy budino (“pudding” in Italian) has a butter-caramel profile and is topped with salted caramel and whipped crème fraîche. Rosemary pine nut cookies are served with the budino for added crunch to contrast with the pudding, salted caramel and crème fraîche. The Butterscotch Budino is not only a favorite at Mozza, it’s inspired variations at some of the top restaurants in L.A., perhaps the highest compliment for a dish.
Shrimp Toast Sandwich - Son of a Gun
At their seafood restaurant Son of a Gun, chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo took a classic dim sum dish, made it into a sandwich, and a contemporary icon was born. The shrimp toast sandwich features a savory-sweet shrimp paste that’s spread over crisp, buttery bread with hoisin sauce and Sriracha mayo. Texture and depth are provided by basil, cilantro, mint, watercress and Thai basil dressed in a fish sauce vinaigrette. The bite-size sandwiches pack a hefty umami punch with a lingering herbaceous finish from the greens.
Blue Crab Hand Roll - Sugarfish & Kazunori
Kazunori Nozawa is credited with the now-familiar serving of a blue crab hand roll at the end of a lunch special or omakase meal. The revered sushi master became widely known for the “Trust Me” omakase featured at his eponymous Sushi Nozawa in Studio City from 1985-2012. That philosophy is now at the heart of his thriving SUGARFISH collection of restaurants, which launched with the opening of the Marina del Rey location in June 2008. SUGARFISH spotlights three “Trust Me” omakase-style menus and notably feature no visible sushi chefs working behind the sushi bar. The blue crab hand roll that finishes two of the core menus features Nozawa’s signature warm rice and, like their other hand rolls, are meant to eaten right away while the nori (seaweed) is crisp.
In August 2014, Nozawa opened KazuNori in Downtown L.A. The new concept was the first restaurant of its kind and is focused on a single-page menu of freshly-made hand rolls, including the signature blue crab. Hand rolls can be ordered a la carte or in set menus with three, four or five hand rolls. KazuNori has since expanded to Westwood Village and Santa Monica.
Tsukemen- Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle
As a sign of the respect garnered by Takehiro Tsujita, ramen wasn’t offered for months after opening his eponymous restaurant on Sawtelle in August 2011. But as soon as Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle started serving tsukemen (dipping ramen), ramen fanatics immediately flocked to Sawtelle Japantown in droves. The lunch-only limited availability added to the tsukemen mystique. The tonkotsu (pork bone) broth is simmered for 60 hours before bonito is added for additional depth of flavor. Thick, chewy noodles are dipped into the dense, syrupy broth and slurped for maximum umami enjoyment. The Tsujita tsukemen experience is a three-step process. First, enjoy one third of the noodles dipped in the broth. Next, squeeze lime juice over the noodles for a much different flavor profile. Customize the ramen with condiments like sesame, karashi takana (spicy pickled mustard greens) and beni shoga (red pickled ginger). Finally, when you’ve finished the noodles, a server adds hot water to the broth so you can enjoy it like a soup. Besides the basic tsukemen, optional toppings include char siu (barbecued pork), ajitama (seasoned soft boiled egg), nori (seaweed) and men-ma (bamboo shoot). In April 2013, Tsujita Annex opened across the street, serving all-day ramen. But aficionados still consider the original the true temple of tsukemen.