Photo © Ben Alsop
These cookbooks don't just share famous dishes from fascinating places. Each one takes you inside the life of the restaurant and, sometimes, even into the psyche of the chef.
L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi
By the Numbers: 87 recipes that follow the contours of the Korean-American chef's career: his mother's kimchi cure-all stew, high-end restaurant dishes (seared scallops with chive beurre blanc), Mexican street food (beef cheek tacos) and the stoner mash-up cuisine (Spam banh mi) he pioneered as the founder of Los Angeles's Kogi BBQ food trucks. Choi is the rare chef whose life story—which includes working with chef Eric Ripert and a weeklong crack cocaine binge—is as compelling as his food.
Most Challenging Dish: Pupusas: small Salvadoran hand pies prepared with fresh masa, homemade kimchi and pork belly that's been braised for three hours.
Most Accessible Dish: Ketchup fried rice. "Ain't nothing more ghetto than [this], but it's damn tasty!" says Choi of this salty-sweet, late-night concoction, topped with a fried egg.
The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook by Michael Anthony
By the Numbers: 125 recipes for the iconic New York City restaurant's elegant New American dishes, sorted by season and adapted for a home cook willing to take on a bit of a challenge.
Best Lessons: The recipes are interspersed with super-useful sections on pickling, pan-roasting fish, making pie crust and more instruction from the earnest, encouraging chef-educator.
Most Challenging Dish: The fettuccine with tomato and duck ragout involves four sub-recipes: duck confit, hand-made pasta, garlic confit and a brown duck sauce that requires three hours to make.
Most Accessible Dish: A creamy, sweet and slightly tart corn soup flavored with just three types of alliums (garlic, leek and shallot), honey and lime juice.
Pok Pok by Andy Ricker
By the Numbers: 70 recipes from the meticulously authentic Pok Pok Thai restaurants and bars in Portland, Oregon, and New York City.
Biggest Revelation: As Ricker writes, "Cooking [Thai] food is relatively straightforward. The hardest part is finding the ingredients." The sheer number of esoteric items these recipes call for—water spinach, fresh galangal, dried shrimp—means that with the exception of jasmine rice and steamed fish, only the most hyper-motivated American cooks can make great Thai food at home. But even though Ricker calls himself a "dictator" about substitutions, he's not totally inflexible. He reveals that Mexican culantro (available in most Latin markets) is the same thing as the rare sawtooth herb, that Key limes are quite similar to Thai limes and that Mexican puya chiles can stand in for dried Thai chiles.
Smart Tip: Coconut milk and cream packaged in cardboard Tetra Paks are of far higher quality than the canned variety.
Roberta's Cookbook by Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, Chris Parachini & Katherine Wheelock
By the Numbers: More than 100 of the restaurant's old-Italian-meets-neo-Brooklyn recipes, including the famed pizza, hearty fresh pastas and chef Carlo Mirarchi's more formal and delicate plated dishes.
Best Lessons: All the fascinating vegetable dishes that use seasonal farmers' market exotica like sucrine, celtuce, black radish and hyssop.
Most Challenging Dish: A salad that isn't technically hard, but combines three especially unusual ingredients: miner's lettuce (a crunchy, mild green), bottarga (cured fish roe) and a vinaigrette made from sorrel—which requires a juicer to make.
Most Accessible Dish: An ultra-smoky split pea soup using Benton's bacon and a bottle of Miller High Life beer.—Michael Endelman