How Los Angeles Became One of the Best Food Cities in the World
How geography, economics, agriculture and multiculturalism made L.A. a top dining destination.
With more restaurants opening every week, L.A. is topping the to-do lists of every food obsessive in America right now. Jonathan Gold to the rest of us: “Told you so.” We sat down with the Pulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles Times restaurant critic to talk about why this is the SoCal city’s greatest moment. —Gillian Ferguson
Q. Los Angeles’s food scene is flying high these days. Why all the fuss?
A. It’s a combination of things: the mosaic of cultures, that we are at the center of a vast agricultural region and the fact that L.A. is very friendly to entry-level capitalism. You can open a place in a mini mall; you can start out with a truck like Roy Choi; you can stage pop-ups like Ludo Lefebvre did before opening Trois Mec. Lasa, a new Filipino spot in Chinatown, operated out of a kitchen incubator until it emerged from its chrysalis. [Exciting things can happen] when you’re not dealing with the hideous, harsh reality of New York or San Francisco rents.
Q. It’s impossible to talk about food in Los Angeles without focusing on the city’s multiculturalism. How has that diversity evolved on the plate?
A. Back in the ’80s you had largely European chefs who were excited by the idea of [exploring exotic] flavors. But now you have chefs with Mexican, Salvadoran, Chinese and Vietnamese backgrounds using classical French technique to punch up their own cuisines. The Southeast Asian food Sang Yoon is doing at Lukshon is very much in that direction—the way he’ll spend six months working on dan dan mien is really impressive. And then there’s Wes Avila at Guerrilla Tacos. Here’s a guy with an haute cuisine background, sourcing the same quality produce you’d find at a restaurant like Providence, but he’s making tacos and selling them off of a truck.
Q. Can we talk about vegetable cooking in L.A.? There was a time when you devoted entire reviews to pork belly, but these days you are musing on turnips. What changed?
A. Everybody is focusing on vegetables—if you’re vegan, you can go to Kali or Baroo and eat plenty of things on the menu. It used to be that restaurants would have that one token steamed-vegetable plate; now you go to a place like P.Y.T. and they have the one token meat plate, a pile of short ribs for someone who just can’t bear the idea of a meal without meat.
Q. Is there such a thing as the ultimate L.A. restaurant right now?
A. Sqirl has that quintessentially L.A. concentration on quality products and that fanatical customer base that will line up for hours. It’s food that everyone can afford—you put in the currency of time as opposed to cash.
Q. Where do you take your friends when they come to visit?
A. I’m always taking people to Chengdu Taste because that quality is just unavailable anywhere else outside of China. I love taking people to what I call the Mozzaplex [Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza and Chi Spacca], Night + Market Song and Rustic Canyon—it’s not brand new, but Jeremy Fox is bubbling up as one of the great chefs. And everybody likes Salazar.