The menu at Santa Monica’s oh-so-busy Native Restaurant is a multicultural mix. Diners can fill their brunch table with a rainbow of California fruit, syrup sandwiches (a French toast remix inspired by Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s hit “Humble”) and hearty kimchi latkes, a piquant take on classic Jewish potato pancakes. At dinner, the menu becomes even more eclectic, with kombu-scented potatoes, Korean gochujang-glazed pork chops and deep-fried chocolate, a rather elegant version of a Mexican churro featuring candied Serrano pepper.
The wildly diverse menu at Native is emblematic of the variety in the exploding food scene in Los Angeles, where an ethnic and culinary melting pot is bringing forth some of the country’s most creative and magically delicious food. With its world-wise mix of Asian, Latin and soul food flavors, Native’s menu is exactly what Los Angeles tastes like right now.
Owner Nyesha J. Arrington is the embodiment of this heady mix: She’s half Korean and half African-American, and the kimchi latkes are a nod to her Korean grandmother. Just a few years ago, Arrington says, Los Angeles “wasn’t a dining destination.” With some high-end and ethnic exceptions, the food scene was a bit safe and maybe a little stiff.
But Arrington and others say that in the past couple of years, the food center of California has been moving south. “I feel like in the last six years it’s been percolating, and now just in the last two years, it’s really celebrated,” Arrington says of the L.A. food scene.
“I think L.A. is the hottest food city in the country right now,” says Adam Sobel, a San Francisco chef who, along with his mentor, Michael Mina, opened Cal Mare in L.A.’s sprawling Beverly Center mall last November. Sobel now splits his time between the two cities. “Chefs are flocking to L.A. because people are hungry and they want to experience creative and delicious food,” he says. “It’s really amazing actually, the last year and a half, what’s happened in Los Angeles.”
Hear that, San Francisco and the Bay Area? Your time sitting smugly atop the Golden State gastronomic throne has run out. To many observers, Los Angeles is now where the foodie action is — a raging hot tub of great new restaurants, cutting-edge chefs and new styles of food, all influenced by Southern California’s intersectional ethnic culture. They’re cooking with fire, sometimes literally (as with Australian chef Curtis Stone’s asador-powered hotspot Gwen) and always figuratively.
To be sure, L.A. has always had great food, with chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Arrington’s mentor, Josiah Citrin, setting food trends over the years, and the late Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who died in July, ferreting out unique ethnic tastes.
But lately, many experts agree, things have accelerated, driven in part by a new generation of ethnic and female chefs working with new styles and ingredients. In addition to Arrington’s Native, for example, Jessica Koslow’s breakfast institution Sqirl draws daily lines for sorrel pesto rice bowls and thick toast piled high with house-made jams and even chocolate pudding, Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson’s newest restaurant, Kismet, has helped to further the delights of Middle Eastern-Californian staples in the city, and Top Chef winner Brooke Williamson has drawn accolades for a growing empire that now numbers four restaurants.
“People just want more diversity,” Arrington says. “I’ve been cooking professionally for about 16 years, and from my standpoint it’s been so beautiful to watch emerging gender lines being broken down and multicultural lines being broken down. To say, ‘I am a chef’ is not just the same person duplicated over and over. It’s really fun to celebrate different global flavors from around the world.”
The abundance of different cultures and ideas also gives Los Angeles an edge over San Francisco in sheer volume of food offerings. According to the California Restaurant Association, one-third of all restaurants in California are in Los Angeles County. That may make the travails of staying in business less harsh than in San Francisco, where restaurants make comedian Chris Rock’s famous “Grand Opening, Grand Closing” joke all too real.
Recently, there have been some exceptional strides among San Francisco chefs who explore their ethnic roots more deeply, as Michael Mina has with this year’s Middle Eastern-focused tasting menu. Last year, chef Val M. Cantu’s artistic and experimental Mission jewel Californios became the first Mexican restaurant in North America to earn two Michelin stars. Rooh, an India-based restaurant group’s first foray into California, is weaving Indian food into the mainstream brunch conversation with share plates of masala omelettes and whole stuffed chickens in musallam curry.
Across town, the Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s from chef Brandon Jew and Eight Tables by George Chen have set a new course for fine Chinese dining in Chinatown. And Tony Gemignani has expanded his pizza empire, which includes a parlor, slice house and cooking school, with an Italian specialty store in North Beach named after his son Giovanni, bringing nostalgia and pedigree to a neighborhood that has lost some of its cornerstones in recent years.
In years past, these chefs might only have been able to find jobs in French or Italian fine-dining kitchens in San Francisco. Now they’re able to show off their native cuisines.
Still, you won’t find quite the same kind of exciting grassroots immigrant food culture in San Francisco that you can in Los Angeles. San Francisco still is a great place to get a burrito, but it lacks the regional depth of the Mexican food options in Southern California, where you can get incredible al pastor at a gas station (Leo’s Tacos) or tire store (Tire Shop Taqueria), or street food that still is firmly rooted in the streets. And you can’t get pain- and anxiety-relieving cannabis CBD lemonade at grocery stores in the Bay Area yet, though it’s a freely available option at Erewhon in Los Angeles. Even the big-box supermarkets in L.A. double as intriguing archives of global ingredients.
“People are finally paying attention to what already made the dining scene great: global culinary diversity, California’s remarkable seasonal ingredients and the fact that Angelenos aren’t beholden to any particular cooking traditions,” says Joshua Lurie, who scours Southern California for restaurants big and small for his website Food GPS as well as contributing to sites like Discover Los Angeles and Eater LA. “Diners are placing more value on long-neglected international cuisines, thanks to massive representation on social media and TV, giving skilled chefs more confidence that the market will support their heritage-driven efforts,” he says, adding that there’s “unprecedented geographic depth” happening in Los Angeles right now.
“The best L.A. chefs aren’t just chasing trends,” he asserts. “They’re delivering highly personal visions.”
Lurie praises restaurants like LASA, which serves Filipino food; Cassia, which explores Southeast Asia; and Bavel, a Middle Eastern spot downtown that became an instant hit earlier this year. “They’re all modern takes on the foods that these chefs grew up eating, presented in recognizable and creative ways,” he says. “Since Angelenos are willing to support diverse cuisines, these restaurants are now becoming mainstream.”
DIVERSITY AND ECONOMY
It takes a hefty wallet to dine out in San Francisco. If you’re at a caviar-buying level — as many of the city’s new restaurants seem to assume — then the culinary world is your (sustainably farmed) oyster. The prevalence of flamboyant and expensive new restaurants unfortunately highlights the Tale of Two Cities that is San Francisco, with haves shuffling around the have-nots for dinner in the Tenderloin and Mission, where expensive restaurants elbow out taquerias and noodle shops
Los Angeles, on the other hand, is more informal. Yes, it’s got Spago, Melisse and other fine-dining standbys, but it’s also a town where great meals can be had in strip malls, at farmers’ markets or even from food trucks. Prices aren’t exactly prix fixe. Add in a wide mix of ethnic influences — Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, even Russian, Belizean, Ethiopian and Israeli — and expatriate chefs from New York and elsewhere, and the result is a more diverse, less pretentious and, yes, tastier food scene.
“Fuckin’ every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate,” chef David Chang famously said at a 2009 New York Food & Wine Festival panel with Anthony Bourdain. Chang made his name in New York City with his Momofuku restaurant empire, which has since expanded to Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., Toronto and Sydney. He recently moved to the West Coast to start something fresh and new — in Los Angeles, and pointedly not San Francisco. (San Francisco is definitely not on his expansion radar; if you ask why, he smirks and asks to go off the record.)
“Los Angeles is the only place where I don’t have to explain what I do,” Chang said as he handed a ssam wrap made of lettuce, shiso leaf, rice paper, spicy ssamjang sauce and smoked American short rib across the chef’s counter of his first L.A. restaurant, Majordomo. This isn’t frou-frou dining. Finding the place in the rather industrial area of the northern end of Chinatown near the Los Angeles River feels not unlike pulling up to an illegal warehouse rave in the ’90s. There are festive lights strung up outside to indicate you’ve found the party.
As at Native and others, you’ll find all kinds of global influences at Majordomo, including baselines of Korean, Italian and Mexican standards. Chang begins by offering a play on jalapeño poppers, using Korean peppers and Benton’s sack sausage from Tennessee, which you can accompany with Chinese bing flatbread topped with eggs and smoked roe or foie gras, ricotta and peach jam. The entrees peak with large-format meat dishes, including the smoked bone-in ribs that Chang serves in the ssam, a tribute to barbecue chef Adam Perry Lang, who also opened his first California restaurant, APL, in Hollywood’s historic Taft Building earlier this year.
Dining at Majordomo feels so much more relaxing than any of the Momofuku restaurants in NYC, which are very solid as a whole but not designed for diners to linger. It has the luxury of being not just protein-forward, with significant meat dishes, but also produce-forward because of its proximity to California’s farms. There’s a sense of belonging in the city; Los Angeles magazine called Majordomo Chang’s “raucous L.A. love letter.”
A CITY OF IMPORTS
Other prominent New York chefs have similarly found Los Angeles to be their preferred playground for new West Coast offerings, and that has boosted the L.A. scene. Pastry chef Dominique Ansel, famous for the croissant-donut hybrid known as the cronut, chose Los Angeles for his first full restaurant, 189 by Dominique Ansel, serving savory food like the “triple sun” carbonara, with sunny-side-up egg, sun chokes and sunflower seeds over homemade fettuccine.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten has settled into a sunny L.A. interpretation of his eponymous New York restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, where he’s given in to the local obsession with serving sashimi over crispy rice. Daniel Humm has managed to make an even better NoMad in downtown L.A. than the original in Manhattan. And Brooklyn street food favorite Smorgasburg routinely attracts thousands of eaters every Sunday for its Downtown L.A. event.
“People want you to succeed because it’s good for L.A., and that’s a nice time to be in a city,” says Smorgasburg co-founder Eric Demby, who has found himself increasingly enamored with his visits to L.A. after 30 years in New York. “Some cities have been around for hundreds of years and they have their identity, and I feel like L.A. is not only forging a new identity but is kind of self-aware of that.”
Smorgasburgers gather for Instagram-friendly options such as giant stuffed lobsters from Lobsterdamus, colorful mandu dumplings from Workaholic, stuffed and glazed pineapples from Shrimp Daddy, Indian paratha bread tacos with Vietnamese flavors from Goa Taco, tostones from The Ricans, smoked pastrami sandwiches by Ugly Drum, buttery Filipino sweet buns from the Ensaymada Project and colorful Hawaiian shave-ice skyscrapers by Chichi Dango.
“I think there is this really strong collective effort to make L.A. a world-class city in a way that everybody kind of always feels it has been, but maybe didn’t get the credit,” Demby says.
It’s not just New York chefs who have been moving to Los Angeles; it’s also been of growing interest to successful Bay Area restaurateurs. Three of San Francisco’s certified hits, bakery Tartine Manufactory, bubble tea dons Boba Guys and quirky punk ice cream parlor Humphry Slocombe, have spent much of the past year working on expansions to Southern California — Tartine to ROW DTLA, where Smorgasburg takes place; Boba Guys to Culver City’s Platform, which is also home to an unofficial Tartine descendent, a taqueria called Loqui that uses Tartine’s sourdough starter in its flour tortillas; and Humphry Slocombe to a tony, food-centric stretch of Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice. Like the New Yorkers, the Bay Area contingent is finding better rents and lots of enthusiasm in Los Angeles.
Humphry Slocombe co-founder Sean Vahey has a fine-dining background, including a stint as a restaurant manager at the Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta, but he laughs when asked to assess the current fine dining scene in San Francisco, which has become increasingly more rigid and stratospherically expensive.
“I can’t afford to go to those places,” Vahey says. “I wish I could tell you about them!”
THE CASE FOR SAN FRANCISCO
San Francisco isn’t resting on its laurels. It excelled in Japanese imports and ideas this year, with fun, food-centric places like the new matcha tea cafes Maiko in Japan Center and Stonemill Matcha in the Mission. There’s also a solid pop-up scene in San Francisco that sometimes incubates strong ideas into popular brick and mortar restaurants and provides stimulating restaurant alternatives. The San Francisco-based nonprofit business center La Cocina has successfully incubated dozens of delicious international minority women-owned food businesses from farmers market folding tables to permanent restaurants or retail prominence. And the city’s numerous farmers markets are nurturing young food businesses with the potential to become future restaurants themselves, in a way that’s so far unmatched by Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is much more willing to embrace its extremes, which can also make it infinitely more fun to eat there. Case in point: the dually fierce love for both donuts and vegan health food chains that San Francisco could never pretend to have. There are even donut happy hours in L.A., most famously at Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts, a pink building emblazoned with the faux-menacing face of actor Danny Trejo.
But it’s more than demographics and dollars. It’s also the intangible but electric love and joyousness that so many chefs in Los Angeles are infusing into their food that is making the local food scene soar above the cliches that have previously kept it just outside the international foodie spotlight. As Arrington, of Native, says, “Where I started my professional career and where it’s at today and what I’ve accomplished and being able to celebrate that more and not feel like I have to fit into this mold. … I can just totally be myself.”
Yet it would be a mistake to think that San Francisco won’t continue to innovate and set trends as well. “I understand why you’re making a case for Los Angeles,” says Adam Sobel’s partner, Michael Mina, who owns and continues to open restaurants in both cities. “But I’ll never be done with San Francisco. To me, it’s as amazing as it’s ever been.”
189 By Dominique Ansel
189 The Grove Dr.
1680 Vine St.
500 Mateo St.
8820 Washington Blvd., #107
8500 Beverly Blvd, Ste. 115
1314 7th St.
Erewhon Market and Cafe
2800 Wilshire Blvd.
6600 Sunset Blvd.
1653B Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Jean-Georges Beverly Hills
9850 Wilshire Blvd.
4648 Hollywood Blvd.
727 N. Broadway
Leo’s Taco Truck
1515 South La Brea Ave.
8830 Washington Blvd., #104
620 Santa Monica Blvd., Ste. A
1725 Naud St.
NoMad Restaurant Los Angeles
649 S. Olive St.
720 N. Virgil Ave., #4
Sundays 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
787 Alameda St.
Tire Shop Taqueria
4100 S. Avalon Blvd.
Trejo’s Coffee and Donuts
6785 Santa Monica Blvd.