SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
Expanding beyond its namesake, Los Angeles’ Chinatown is experiencing a growth spurt of non-Chinese restaurants, making it a frequent hitter for food lovers. LA’s play to compete with major food cities like New York and SF isn’t new as the dining scene of this sprawling city has been rapidly growing from downtown to the westside, even breathing life into sleepy Santa Monica. Arguably one of the of the best parts about the city -- other than the fact that it’s sunny all day, every day -- is that you can get a sampling of all different types of cuisines, ranging from Mexican, Korean to Persian, you just have to be willing to drive and suffer through traffic. Enter the new and improved Chinatown that brings together the best flavors and cuisines of the world in one easy and walkable locale.
Chinatown will always be loved for its great dim sum places, tea parlors and grocery stores (when you’re not looking to make the drive to San Gabriel) but now it offers so much more with its diversified sampling of cuisines. A large part of this exciting new change is the culinary incubator from chef Alvin Cailan (notably known from Eggslut), where chefs are provided with an existing space to cook without investing thousands of dollars. Think of it as akin to being accepted into one of the shared co-working spaces created for tech start-ups, except the focus is food and food alone. This innovative opportunity is driving talent into Chinatown with pop-up spots like Lasa. When asked about his experience at Unit 120, Chase Valencia of Lasa had only positives to share, noting that the community acceptance and exposure of their food has been great for them. They’ve been able to test out the kinks in their business as they move toward the goal of opening their own brick-and-mortar location. In this unique space, you’ll find chefs filling the air with delicious scents and experimenting with dishes and flavors, making this one of the more exciting parts of the city to visit.
Feel like a taste of the south? Stroll into The Little Jewel of New Orleans for a po’boy and it’s as if you can almost hear that jazz band playing around the corner (makes the concrete and pollution of the city a lot easier to bear). Or be inspired by another great music city with the hot, hot, hot Nashville-style fried chicken at Howlin’ Ray’s. The buzzy feel of this crop of new restaurants has made LA’s Chinatown a place to explore for both the old and the new. Here, we gathered our favorite spots for fried chicken, sandwiches and bowls of happiness.
Like many a restaurant before them, Howlin’ Ray's began as a food truck, traveling around LA donning out Nashville-style hot chicken, until it landed at Chinatown’s Far East Plaza. Run by husband-and-wife team, Johnny and Amanda Chapman, this fried chicken store brings a new type of fried chicken to the scene, moving away from the popularity of Korean-fried chicken. Your choice of chicken -- half bird, whole bird, skinny Jimmy (boneless breast) -- is served in a red-and-white checkered paper-lined basket with a side of pickles and bread, which will prove useful depending on how hot you like it. Pick country for those who can’t take the heat, hot for a ‘burn, baby, burn’ or Howlin! meant for the die hards. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays and open for lunch until four p.m. the rest of the week, Howlin’ Ray’s is a must-try for fried chicken lovers with both takeout and dine-in options available.
727. N. Broadway; (213) 935-8399
The news that Filipino food is making headway in LA isn't breaking headlines, but we love the dishes coming out of the kitchen of chef-brother team Chase and Chad Valencia. They try to introduce lesser known Filipino ingredients into their dishes, like bagoong, a fermented shrimp paste, served with crispy rice and pickled stems. We love the use of calamansi, a type of citrus, turned into a calamansi butter and served with egg noodles and scallions. Chase explains that Filipinos have various types of vinegars -- sugar cane, coconut and nipa palm -- that are very acidic and work well to highlight the sour/tangy flavors that predominate the cuisine. As he points out, it’s a step away from the balsamic, sherry and red wine vinegars that most people are used to eating.
Located in Unit 120, the restaurant serves a seasonal menu listed on its website on Friday and Saturday evenings with options for an a la carte menu or three-course prix-fixe.
727 N. Broadway (213) 443-6163
The east-side location of this rice bowl masterpiece from Roy Choi serves the same beloved types of food that launched its popularity back in 2010 with dishes like the kimchi spam bowl. There’s something utterly soothing about digging into a hearty rice bowl topped with a fried egg, made even better by the addition of kochujang-coated Kurobuta pork belly and crunchy peanuts. Snacks like 3PM Meatballs and beer-battered fries topped with spicy sambal, crumbly cotija cheese and pickled garlic make a stop here almost impossible to avoid. Don’t skip dessert with items like sweet coconut rice and caramelized pineapple or a Sriracha bar that capitalizes on the power combo of heat and chocolate with a chocolate-crisped rice bottom and Sriracha ganache. You can also find limited menus on the west side in the Alibi room and in the Whole Foods in DTLA, if you can’t make it to this part of town and need a fix.
727 N. Broadway #117 (323) 380-8680
This old school diner isn’t new to the Chinatown scene, and it’s lasted for a reason. Sandwich lovers flock here to down their most famous menu item, one they claim to have invented, the “French dipped sandwich.” Made up your choice of meat -- roast beef, pork, leg of lamb, turkey or ham -- a French roll dipped in the gravy of the roast meat, and the sandwich is finished off with your choice of cheese. It’s this extra layer of rich, gravy-soaked bread that sets this sandwich apart from the others and conjures up the Thanksgiving episode on Friends when Ross flips out because his co-worker ate his leftover sandwich, made with a ‘moist maker’ layer of gravy-soaked bread. With homemade mustard made weekly and a great old school feel, Phillipes’ current location on the edge of Chinatown may not be the original one but we sure hope it lasts.
1001 Alamada St.; (213) 628-3781
Homegirl Cafe is an inspirational enterprise as it lives under the umbrella of Homeboy, which focuses on providing work for men and women who were formerly involved in gangs or are at high risk. Job training skills are provided as well as a supportive environment as these men and women build new lives for themselves. Homegirl serves contemporary Latino fare based on a menu by founding chef Pati Zarate. If you can’t make it to Chinatown, check out their catering services available online and baked goods served at more than 20 LA farmers markets. Breakfast items include chilaquiles topped with warm tomatillo salsa, crema fresca with the option of adding two eggs any style. Lighter, more LA-friendly options such as blueberry multi-grain and quinoa pancakes as well as homemade granola are also offered. Lunch items include a variety of sandwiches, like Consuelo’s served with panela cheese and a jalapeno pesto, as well as a kale grilled cheese topped with fresh herbs, roasted tomatoes and chopped smoked bacon bits. Salads, soups and small starters are available with some of the produce coming from the company’s own mini farms. A great excuse to support people in the community while enjoying delicious food at the same time. What we like to think of as a win win situation.
130 W. Bruno St.; (213) 617-0380
6. Pok Pok
The original PDX location of this Thai-inspired restaurant has grown with outposts popping up in rapid fire succession in New York and LA. The Chinatown Pok Pok is located in the Mandarin Plaza and offers take-out, dine-in and seats at the bar. They are known for their signature dish, spicy, crunchy wings finished with a caramelized fish sauce that produces a smell and taste like no other. While they’ve made the recipe widely available to be replicated at home -- trust me, I’ve tried -- it still tastes best when a hot plate arrives in front of you, the small garlic bits grasping the sticky meat for dear life, and the contrast of crunchy skin and tender, moist meat is one that cures blues any day of the week. Did we mention that they now serve them at brunch? Aka the ultimate hangover cure.
Vegetarian options are also available, such as the het paa naam tok made with spicy grilled forest mushrooms, a vegetarian fish sauce, shallots and finished off with the brightness of lemongrass, cilantro, mint for a well-rounded and well-textured dish. Don’t skip the side of sticky rice and coconut rice.
978 N. Broadway; (213) 613-1831
7. Ramen Champ
Steps away from Chego and near other notable spots in this guide, Ramen Champ has reopened as a 22-seat restaurant in the popular Far East Plaza in Chinatown. Since reopening in September, the restaurant first launched with a limited ramen menu, still serving the rich, pork tonkotsu as well as a vegan broth made with kelp, and now is slowly expanding to add sides and toppings. The sides of chili pepper chicken or shrimp are true to their name with flaming red sliced chili peppers and loose seeds dotting the mix of crispy chicken and broccoli, an indication of the heat that lays ahead. New toppings like corn or nori seaweed can also be added to ramen for $1.
The reason for these changes is the new owner, Yoshimasa Kasai, former director of LA’s Ramen Yokocho Festival. He kept the decor the same and thankfully the dishware as we still love slurping up the tonkotsu in the beautiful Ramen Champ-logoed bowls. Follow their Facebook page for more updates as this relatively new shop is sure to make more changes in the future.
727 N Broadway; (213) 316-8595
While we wish we could be strolling the streets of Nola with a can of Abita, snacking on a muffaletta or hitting up Cochon for some wood-fired oysters, LA dwellers can get a taste of the south at this Chinatown market and deli. Relive the finger-hot, powdered beignets of Cafe du Monde with a set of three for breakfast, offered as a pairing with a chicory black coffee for $6.5. Po’Boy options are enough for you to book a ticket to Jazz Fest with fillings like fried oysters, a Louisiana fried catfish filet or the Little Jewel deluxe half and half (mixed shrimp and oyster). True to southern hospitality, the staff is aimed at trying to please you and notes on the menu that their sandwiches are heavily dressed with mayo -- make sure to let them know if you want to opt out or lessen the amount. Other menu items shrimp and grits, spicy Creole style jambalaya as well as a daily special offer something for everyone (the Andouille sausage and others are made in-house and are not to be missed). The market aims at providing locals with the hard-to-find items from the south and introducing others to something that they may not know about.
207 Ord St; (213) 620-0461
Named after the Taiwanese word for “foodies,’ meaning the food-obsessed people (ourselves included) who think about food at all times of day and are always on the hunt for somewhere good to eat, Lau Tao is the food lover’s dream. Founder and chef David Wang quit his corporate job to follow his passion, opening this 25-seat restaurant in LA’s Chinatown. Coming from a family of restaurant owners, Wang decided to opt for a more traditional setting where he can introduce more authentic street food flavors to his diners.
We love the items under the big bowl portion of the menu like the flat noodles coated in an eight-hour spicy bone marrow broth and finished off with fork-tender five-spice beef shank. Topped with crunchy napa cabbage and pickled veggies, this is ultimate comfort food. Other items like twice-fried popcorn chicken made with jalapeno, chili powder and Asian purple basil make for shareable snacks.
727 N Broadway; (213) 372-5318
10. Mexicali Taco
Mexican food is great in LA, especially when compared to many of its counterparts on the east coast. But that doesn’t mean that all taco stands, trucks or shops are made the same, in fact, it’s still just as important to search out the worthy ones as it is with other cuisines and cities. The pet peeve of any taco lover is an unbalanced ratio of meat to tortilla, which is a quick way to discern the good from the bad, not to mention quality and flavor. Enter Mexicali Taco, who shares your desire for equality and ensures that you’ll have the ratio you want, plus high quality meat to boot.
The restaurant is named after the border city in northern Baja, also the hometown of co-founder Esdras Ochoa. The street-style food of his native city is brought to you in their brick-and-mortar location in Chinatown, where it’s cooked flame-grilled over a fire. There, you can snack on tacos served on traditional harina or maiz tortillas, generously stuffed with your choice of meat. Flavorful shrimp tacos and nachos coated with meat, hot, gooey melted cheese and salsa will instantly spark food envy in nearby diners.
707 N Figueroa St; (213) 613-0416
Only in LA will you find a vegan burger that’s worthy of being compared to an all-beef burger. Burgerlords does both a grass-fed burger, made with a tri-blend of beef, and a vegan burger exceptionally well. The menu is kept simple with cheese being the only available alteration and a side of Kennebec potato fries on the side (though you can always double or triple your patty). Brothers Max and Fred Guerrero, two of the co-owners, are vegetarian and explained that it was “important to have something we were proud of,” about deciding to be inclusive of vegan diners and create a restaurant that would appeal to a wider audience. The LA-native team is always on the move to provide their guests with innovative dining options, so make sure to check out their website for the latest venture. We loved the ‘Burger Merger’ with chef Tim Hollingsworth where he created two burgers that would be offered for every Monday for a month. Next up, the team does a pop-up on the east coast at Mission Cantina. We can’t wait to check it out.
943 N Broadway; (323) 405-4012
Header image by Stephanie Barros.
Yasmin Fahr is a professional eater, writer, traveler and recipe developer. She spent the last four years as an undercover inspector for Forbes Travel Guide, traveling the world to review restaurants and hotels in North & South America, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. Some of her favorite eating experiences have been burning her mouth on Yang's fried dumplings on a street corner in Shanghai (because she was so excited to eat them and couldn't wait) and devouring the fish sandwich at Cuz's Fish Shack in Barbados, located in the parking lot of the Hilton -- a must if you're on the island. She previously wrote a recipe column for Serious Eats with her writing appearing in the LA Times, Yahoo! Travel, Food & Wine, Livestrong.com and others. She's lived in LA and London and currently resides in New York City but wanderlust runs deep so she never stays put for too long. Some of her favorite destinations and cities are Costa Rica, Barcelona, Rome, Hong Kong and St. Lucia.