The Anti-Tourist: LA Recommended

Growing up as only child, my parents kindly took me with them on their many travels. Without fail, the most exciting thing about our destinations was the food. France, Greece, Northern California, New York City… before our trips, I recall mom and dad clipping reviews from papers and magazines (pre-Google! pre-Urban Spoon!), plotting out our culinary itinerary to the meal. It’s only logical though — nothing gives more intimate connection to a place and a people than food.

This past weekend, my fiancée and I headed to Los Angeles to meet up with my folks and enjoy a brief vacation. Again, meals provided the anchors around which the rest of the trip would flow. Admittedly, three nights in LA are not enough to scratch the city’s strange, smoggy surface, but my special lady and I certainly came away from the trip with a few food and entertainment recommendations. If you’re heading to LA for a day or a week, or (I suppose, if you live in LA and just need an excuse to try something new) consider adding these to your list. They’re places worthy of planning a trip around.

Check out a photo gallery from my LA trip, here

The main dining room of Gjelina, on Abbot Kinney
The main dining room of Gjelina, on Abbot Kinney

Gjelina – Located amongst the pricey eclectic boutiques of tragically hip Abbot Kenny Road, Gjelina offers a high-end rustic setting with fresh, well-thought-out food: raw wood planks and beams, bare light bulbs with bright orange filaments aglow, rusted metal fixtures, a monumental steel I-beam exposed on the ceiling. We sat in the back patio, where patina-colored tables rested on antique bricks. Every dish we tried was superb: grilled brussels sprouts with bacon, dates, and vinegar; a mixed cheese plate with goat, cow, and sheep’s milk cheeses; a flatiron steak sandwich on a baguette with chili peppers, arugula, and a sinus-infiltrating (in a good way) horseradish aioli; a fried egg sandwich with roasted pepper, mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula, and harissa aioli; and a lamb burger with the same harissa aioli, roasted tomato, and arugula. Next door is Gjelina GTA, a take-out specific space for those looking to save a little money and a lot of time – gjelina.com.

Mixed cheese plate at Gjelina
Mixed cheese plate at Gjelina

Intelligentsia Coffee – Also on Abbot Kinney, this spot takes coffee dorkery to its logical extreme. The first and most noticeable trait of the large, airy café is the layout. Instead of the typical straight block of forward-facing counter space, Intelligentsia features a circular counter, penning in the four or five tragically hip knowledgable baristas working the gleaming coffee machinery. The theory behind the counter circle, our barista informed us, was to reduce the distance between barista and customer. In the rear of the shop was an area labeled “slow bar.” Here, a coffee expert will take you through the origin story of the particular coffee you order. Whether you enjoy Intelligentsia’s ambience or not (I did), it’s hard to argue that the high-quality, fresh coffee was expertly prepared. The cappuccinos and lattes were artful blends of well-pulled espresso and what I can only presume was local, organic milk. A small, moist red velvet mini cake sported a layer of raspberry cream and a delicate chocolate coating. While enjoying our Intelligentsia experience, we were also stoked to see our favorite ex-IRA weapons expert, Fiona, from the TV series Burn Notice (her real name is Gabrielle Anwar). Our LA experience felt somehow more complete for the television-star sighting – intelligentsiacoffee.com.

Note: Our barista at Intelligentsia was practiced in the art of latte “leaf” creation (see below). For a very cool piece on this frothy medium, check out The Art of Judging Latte Art on Slate.com

 cacA barista pouring a near-perfect latte at Intelligentsia
A barista pouring a near-perfect cappuccino at Intelligentsia
A barista at Intelligentsia Coffee
A barista at Intelligentsia Coffee

The Lazy Ox Canteen – Located in one of my favorite downtown LA neighborhoods, Little Tokyo, the Lazy Ox isn’t a Japanese restaurant. The owner, Michael Hide Cardenas, however, was raised in Japan, and Japanese notes definitely infiltrate many of the eclectic dishes. Our party of four waited a solid hour to be seated sans reservation, but luckily a walk through Little Tokyo burned most of that. At one point, we came across an awkward outdoor karaoke session in a little plaza full of bakeries, noodle shops, and fashion boutiques. We spent the final twenty minutes of our wait sipping sake and big bottles of Kirin at the Japanese restaurant next door to the Lazy Ox. Once seated, we ordered four small and four medium-sized plates, not of a single one of which was less than amazing. Still, some standouts included barbecued short ribs, polenta with mushrooms, the tempura artichoke hearts with a citrus mayonnaise, and the ricotta fritters with honey. I can only assume the rest of the items on the ever-changing menu would have been as exceptional, too. For desert, a seasonal fruit crumble, and butterscotch pudding were among the party favorites, but again, nothing was disappointing. The Lazy Ox philosophy is “to bring exceptional ingredients prepared artistically at an approachable price.” The first two items I can see, but the approachable price thing seems like a bit of a stretch. Maybe I’ve forgotten how much things cost in the big city… – lazyoxcanteen.com

Also highly recommended are LA’s many food trucks. We only ate at one, which served killer Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches on baguettes),  so you’ll have to experiment to find your style. Totally worth it. Find them at findlafoodtrucks.com

A food truck in LA
"Cool Haus," one of many food trucks in LA. This one was parked across the street from the LA Country Museum of Art, which has a great show on California modernist design from the 1930s-60s.

And here are a few places we didn’t get to go but that were highly recommended by trustworthy sources: