Pop Quiz. Where can you drop off your fluff and fold, pick up a travel-size tube of toothpaste, and exchange your DVD rentals, all in one location? That’s right. Strip malls. In the past, however, these tiny shopping plazas were synonymous with poor culinary options, serving up soggy burritos and tasteless sandwiches. Then one day an anonymous dim sum joint was recognized for its perfect little nuggets. Then came a Peruvian hole-in-the-wall serving up an exquisite ceviche. And when Lou Amdur debuted his eponymous wine bar, it suddenly seemed normal, almost expected, to find a quality eatery with a thoughtful beverage list, in a hodgepodge of dry cleaners and pawn shops. We love L.A. for many reasons, but we admire this city all the more for its strip mall gems, dishing out both innovate and authentic cuisine in the most unassuming locations. Who said L.A. is all image, no substance?
Craving a hot bowl of heaven at 3 am on a Friday night? Ikemen has got you covered. But after one slurp at this ramen joint you’re going to find yourself craving their rich broth and al dente noodles just about every other waking minute of your life. Variations of dip ramen, where a tangle of noodles is served separately from the broth, are served with an option of grilled chicken or chashu pork. The premium ramen bowl punches the palate with a swampy basin of tonkotsu broth, charged with flavor. It doesn’t matter it’s cash only. It doesn’t matter they don’t serve alcohol. Ikemen will make you think that every bowl that came before it, was a sad case of Cup O’ Noodles.
1655 N La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90028. (323) 800-7669.
Everyone in L.A. knows that you’re not a real Angeleno until you’ve sweated through a feast at Jitlada. Everyone also knows that when you dine at Jitlada, you order off of the Southern Thai menu, where dishes burst with flavor and burn with spice. Green-lipped mussels bathing in a fiery curry leave you spooning the remaining juices like soup, and shrimp salads build on texture with crunchy fried watercress. With over 300 dishes to choose from, it will take several visits (and several glasses of ice water) to get through the menu, but that’s hardly something to complain about.
5233 W Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90027. (323) 663-3104.
If flying to Paris for dinner is a tad out of your budget, simply drive over to Papilles instead. Actually, you’re going to want to taste chef Tim Carey’s cooking regardless of France-bound intentions or not – no one else is serving up cuisine this elegant at prices so reasonable. With its heart in the bistronomique movment, each evening the menu details a 3-course meal, with two options per course, priced at around $35. Some nights you may start with roasted beef bone marrow or frog legs served with forest mushrooms. Other nights you’ll spoon a creamy vichyssoise or smoky slivers of house cured salmon. You may then move onto a tender hanger steak, or a brilliantly dressed cut of sole. Our favorite part of dessert is that there is always a cheese selection among sweeter choices, such as creme caramel or chocolate terrine. As if we couldn’t love this place anymore, Papilles recently started waiving corkage fees for bottles of French wine on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Papilles, Je t’aime.
6221 Franklin Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90028. (323) 871-2026.
Sapp Coffee Shop, Hollywood
Don’t waste any time trying to navigate through Sapp’s janky ad-filled website, and get yourself into their bowl of boat noodles pronto. You’ll hardly notice the stripped-down surroundings once you’re bowed over their rapturous broth, fish balls bobbing, pork rinds abound. Every dish is impeccably seasoned with a bit of heat and often tiny mounds of red pepper, crushed peanuts, and sugar. And if you’re wondering why an authentic Thai eatery mentions coffee in their moniker, go for it – indulge in their syrupy Thai beverages. It’s so good, it might as well be dessert.
5183 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027 . (323) 665-1035.
Tere’s Mexican Grill, Hollywood
Step down, chicken noodle soup, our comfort food of choice is a pair of cheese enchiladas. And at Tere’s they’re done just right: handmade tortillas stuffed with gooey cheese and painted with mole. Dishes here taste the way you’d want them to, if you were dining at the cook’s home. Understated and familiar, with an understanding of flavor and tradition. There’s only a few tables available, but if you’re not lucky enough to snag one of them, let us reassure you that the food is just as good eaten via Styrofoam container on the go.
5870 Melrose Ave, Ste 101, Los Angeles, CA 90038. (323) 468-9345.
Sushi Park, West Hollywood
Want to know how good Sushi Park is? It still doesn’t have a website. That’s how good. Lovers of traditional sushi and omakase adventurers alike still flock to this tiny joint, which doesn’t seat many, but comes with a hefty price tag. Buttery cuts of toro and hamachi rest on dainty slugs of warm rice. Bivalves are delicately sauced and presented in their shells. Thinly sliced sashimi is served in a shallow lake of citrus and soy sauce. We love that there isn’t a dollop of mayonnaise in sight. We love it even more when our date picks up the bill. With Sushi Nozawa’s sayonara, Park picks up the crown as sushi nazi.
8539 Sunset Blvd, Ste 20, West Hollywood, CA 90069. (310) 652-0523.
Chego, West L.A.
We’re not purposely trying to put a Roy Choi restaurant on every top ten list, but when it comes to feeding L.A.’s belly there’s no one who understand the people’s palate more than Choi. At Chego, every dish pops with flavor and color. Glazed pork belly is tossed with pickled radishes, water spinach, Chinese broccoli, peanuts then topped with a fried golden egg. Asparagus is charred then splashed with cilantro salsa, chili and a throw of grated parmesan. And we’re completely addicted to the fries, L.A.’s answer to poutine, served with a smattering of cheeses, sour cream sambal, and a touch of heat. When out-of-towners ask us to lead them to our favorite restaurants, our first stop is Chego – the soul of Los Angeles cooking. When our guests depart, we go back to Chego, just to appreciate that this little gem is ours.
3300 Overland Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90034. (310) 287-0337.
Mosto Enoteca, Venice
Remember roaming the streets of Italy and popping into a tiny eatery, and suddenly you were having the best meal of your life? Remember shuffling out afterward and exclaiming, “I wish this place were in L.A. I’d eat there every week!”? Well, Mosto Enoteca is that neighborhood restaurant, where chef Fabrizio Giorgi is serving up brilliantly executed dishes. The squid ink tagliatelle is made from freshly cut pasta and garnished with juicy cherry tomatoes and a heap of greens. Shanks are so tender they slide off the bone. The wine list, an extensive but not exhaustive collection that parallels the menu in authenticity and thought, captures California and regional Italian wines, including many selections in small production. See? Wishes do come true.
17 Washington Blvd, Venice, CA 90292. Upper deck. (310) 821-3035.
Tlapazola, West L.A.
We got sauced at Tlapazola. And by that we mean we fell for their mole negro, inky and sweet, and their addictive molcajete. Every dish awoke under a coat of savory yellow mole, and a cooling tomatillo sauce still had the right amount of zest in each bite. Even post-meal, you can’t help but continue to devour the remaining tortilla chips dunked in the complimentary bowl of yes, mole. At lunchtime, burritos are rolled fat, and soft tacos are ordered individually. And because we like to live on the edge, we order from an offering of mezcals and sip it ice-cold, mid-day. Or, you can choose your poison from a lineup of over 100 tequilas. It may be helpful to note that Saturday is the only day you can eat your way all the way from lunch through dinner.
11676 Gateway Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064. (310) 477-1577.
Sugarfish, various locations
Normally we’d take great strides to avoid a place that has expanded to five locations and doesn’t accept reservations. How, then, is Sugarfish the exception? We’ll tell you how. It’s that clean, fresh fish, on that warm, fluffy rice. It’s an abundant and first-rate omakase that maxes out at $39 on a dinner menu. It’s the fact that this is all we have remaining of legendary sushi master, Kazunori Nozawa. And Sugarfish respects the tradition and standards that Nozawa set with his eponymous sushi restaurant in the valley. Nozawa’s motto: “Trust me.” We still do.
Brentwood. Downtown. Marina del Rey. Santa Monica. Studio city.