100 Best Restaurants in Los Angeles: (91-100)
Posted on 06 November 2015
91. Aqui es Texcoco
When you get in your car and drive to Aqui es Texcoco, you are not there for the Mexican craft beers, the promise of handmade pulque or the sturdy quesadillas. The mixiotes, stews baked in parchment with fat slivers of agave leaf, are delicious, especially the one made with rabbit, but they are as minor a diversion as the roasted lambs' heads. You are there for vast portions of lamb barbacoa, pit-roasted with those agave leaves, chewy and gelatinous and touched with crunchy bits of char. You eat the lamb with stacks of hot tortillas, puddles of beans, freshly made guacamole and foam cups of consommé fashioned from the drippings of the lamb, served so hot that your flimsy plastic spoon is likely to curl up in its depths. And come early. The barbacoa is often sold out by early afternoon.
92. Mariscos Jalisco
There may be no lonchero more famous than Raul Ortega, who tends to win every festival contest he enters and whose regulars drive from as far as San Diego to taste his aguachile, his mammoth Poseidon seafood tostadas and, of course, the crunchy shrimp tacos that are the specialty of his hometown, San Juan de los Lagos. Ortega's truck has been parked in this spot for 14 years, and for nearly all of those years he has maintained a friendly rivalry with another lonchero, serving precisely the same menu, parked a hundred yards west down the block. Those shrimp tacos, tacos dorados de camarones, taste of salt and corn and clean oil, and then, as you crunch through it, of the smaller, brinier crunch of fresh shrimp. No matter how nicely you ask, Ortega will neither tell you where he buys his seafood nor what the source of the slight creaminess at the center might be. They are his secrets. If you would rather not eat your tacos while leaning against your car, Mariscos Jalisco now has a small dining room adjacent to the truck.
93. Garlic & Chives
The concept of Asian American fusion gets tossed around a lot here. Garlic & Chives is the other kind of fusion, an Asian chef, Kristin Nguyen, looking at American chefs looking at Asian cuisines. In practice, this means that the restaurant feels a little like an American izakaya, but what's on the sharing plates is very Vietnamese: pomelo salad, deep-fried salmon belly, herb-intensive rice-paper rolls and a curried goat stew served with a crisp, hot baguette. Standards, like stewed pork belly or catfish in caramel sauce, are served with sticky rice scorched in a cast-iron skillet until the mass turns into something more closely resembling a loosely rolled noodle, and a crisply fried Vietnamese-spiced version of Chengdu Taste's famous toothpick lamb. But mostly there are drifts of fried minced garlic, crunchy as Grape Nuts, scattered over everything but dessert. Fried garlic is its own reward.
94. Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong
There are those who might dismiss Baekjeong as a chain restaurant owned by a celebrity, the Korean equivalent of the Hard Rock Cafe. And they are right, at least inasmuch as the place is owned by a Korean wrestler turned reality show star, there are several other Baekjeongs in South Korea and the U.S., and tourists do still pause to take pictures of themselves wrapping their arms around the life-size cutout of him that wobbles outside the front door. Plus, they're going to blast "Gangnam Style'' at you every 15 minutes whether you like it or not. But even given the two-hour wait for a table on weekends, Baekjeong turns out to be one of the better Korean barbecue places in town: set menus of short ribs and bulgogi and beef tongue and pork belly nicely seared off on big tabletop charcoal grills. The grills are surrounded by built-in wells in which scrambled eggs and corn cheese will cook in the course of your meal. And you should also probably get an order of shaken dosirak, a Korean lunchbox that you whang around until the contents rearrange into a crude bibimbap. It may be the only standard restaurant dish anywhere in the world whose origin points to a bored 6-year-old on a playground.
Nyesha Arrington is an experimentalist at heart, I think, the kind of chef who plunges into the farmers market, fills her crates and only then asks herself what she might do with all of the peak-season produce. So at her bright Venice bistro, you find cauliflower in her cheesy pommes aligot, beef heart in her meatballs and a stratum of minted mushy peas underneath her seared salmon. The chocolate ganache shortbread is sprinkled with both Maldon salt and tiny lavender blossoms. And you might find just about everything on her crudités plate: miniature turnips, cherry tomatoes, carrot fronds and that leafy part of the celery bunch that you usually throw away, but when you dip them into curried chickpeas, all is right in the world.
One of the terrific things about big cafes is their ability to give shape to neighborhoods that may never before have had much of a center; to act as a third place, neither work nor home, for locals to gather — and probably to drive gentrification too, but that's another story. It can be nice to realize that you live within walking distance of well-made cortados and avocado toast. And one of the most pleasant to open in the Sqirl era may be Lincoln, where Christine Moore and her baker, Cecilia Leung, have brought kouign-amann and vegetable tartines, breakfast salads and herb-stuffed croissants, to a corner of northwestern Pasadena that never knew it needed those things. So you will have a plate of gravlax, or you will have a farro bowl with chickpeas, but you will also probably wait in line for these things.
97. Wang Xing Ji
Wang Xing Ji is the first American branch of a popular dumpling house in Wuxi, a lakeside city about 45 minutes out of Shanghai. Actually, Wang Xing Ji is the dumpling house in Wuxi, over a century old, the one restaurant every guidebook seems to mention. The dishes are famous for their sweetness — even the fantastic soup dumplings, which are presumably what you are here to taste, although you can opt for unsweetened dumplings if you worry about that sort of thing. On most days, I think I may prefer Wang Xing Ji's soup dumplings to the more famous ones at Din Tai Fung. The candied Wuxi spare ribs and the Salt & Pepper Crispy Cake are also worth your while. And you may as well try a giant crab and pork bun, a smoking-hot dumpling the size of a water balloon, sneakily full of boiling soup, which you are encouraged to sip like a milkshake through an oversized plastic straw. It is the only way.
98. Golden Deli
In the last few years I have been sending people to Pho Filet in South El Monte for pho, to Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa for charcoal-grilled meatballs and to Nha Trang for bun bo Hue. When it comes to com tam, broken rice, Com Tam Thuan Kieu is the best bet; for bánh beo, it's Summer Roll. And that's not even taking into consideration the bun cha Hanoi, the bánh cuon, the seven courses of goat and whatever down in Orange County's Little Saigon. Why then does the line outside Golden Deli stretch halfway to infinity on weekends? Because it always has, because the restaurant set the pho standard in the San Gabriel Valley probably before you were born and because the cha gio, crackly-skinned imperial rolls stuffed with pork and crab among other things, are the best in the observable universe.
99. Szechuan Impression
It is hard to believe at the moment, but not long ago Sichuan peppercorns were illegal, fuqi feiipan was unknown here and the only real Sichuan restaurant in town was a few tables crammed into a former House of Pies. But Sichuan cooking has exploded in the San Gabriel Valley, not least because of the success of Chengdu Taste. And Szechuan Impression, whose chef is fresh from a five-star restaurant in Chengdu, is probably the restaurant in town that leans the closest to Sichuan haute cuisine: not just toothpick lamb and boiled fish in chile sauce but also fresh bamboo sprouts lightly dressed with chile, chewy smoked pig's ears, tea-smoked spareribs, dry-fried farm chickens and soupy Leshan beef, all of which are distinctly less fire-breathing and a bit more nuanced than what you tend to find elsewhere in the SGV. Do you want Cinderella's Pumpkin Ride and some honey pomelo tea after your still admittedly spicy meal? You have been asked more difficult questions.
100. Nickel Diner
In 2009, Nickel Diner seemed like the future of downtown's Main Street, a dream of a diner, designed to look undesigned, on the site of a long-forgotten greasy spoon where the transactions were not necessarily of the culinary sort. Suddenly, there was arugula on the BLT, the hash was made with pulled pork instead of canned meat, and the hot doughnuts, made by an actual pastry chef, were glazed with maple and bacon. Now, its block marked with both luxury lofts and homeless shelters, Nickel Diner basically is the neighborhood, distinctly of both worlds, and Monica May and Kristen Trattner seem to know everybody who drops by, from artists to financial guys to street musicians. The menu includes the pancakes, fried eggs and bacon without which there would be rebellion in the streets, but Nickel Diner also bakes its own bread, stuffs avocadoes with quinoa and makes delicious fried catfish with corn cakes.