How many cuisines can you try in the City of Angels in 12 hours? If you’re Kate Springer, quite a few…
Stepping out onto West Olympic Boulevard, west of downtown Los Angeles, the first thing I notice about Guelaguetza Restaurante – an Oaxacan restaurant located in Koreatown – is its citrus-hued façade. There are murals on all sides, one of which depicts a smiling boy wearing a sombrero and holding a rooster under the shade of the building’s eaved roof.
In any other city, a Mexican restaurant might seem out of place in Koreatown, but I’m in LA, where the city of 10 million is home to people from more than 140 countries speaking over 220 languages. Besides Mexican, there are also Chinese, Japanese and various other Korean fusion cuisines along the street I’m on.
“Historically, we’ve been a relatively welcoming place for immigration,” says Richard Foss, a food writer, researcher and board member of Culinary Historians of Southern California I meet some time later for Korean-Mexican short rib burritos at Kogi Food Truck, founded by Korean-American chef Roy Choi. “If you went to other cities in the interior of America and you weren’t a fluent English speaker, you might stand out. But in Los Angeles, you could more easily find your community. Plus, everyone loves the weather.”
It’s easy to see the appeal. During my time in LA, the temperature hovers around 22°C, with an intermittent breeze and a soft kiss of sunlight. It couldn’t be prettier. Weather, education, safety, free speech… these are just a few of the reasons LA appeals to immigrants.
Which bring us back to Guelaguetza. I’m in LA on a mission to sample as many international cuisines as possible in a day – 12 hours, to be exact. The task is daunting so rather than go at it alone, I enlist the help of Lisa Scalia, co-founder of Melting Pot Food Tours. With 10 years of leading food tours of the city under her belt, I can’t think of anyone better to join me on the race from one corner of LA to another to sample the city’s most diverse bites. And the clock starts… now!
Oaxacan cuisine in Koreatown
Inside the spacious Guelaguetza, a riot of energy explodes from the floral tabletops, black-and-white murals and turquoise walls. The family-run restaurant, now in its second generation, specialises in authentic cuisine from Oaxaca – a remote region in southwest Mexico that’s known for a distinct cuisine that’s unlike any Mexican you might have tried.
Oaxacan food tends to be smoky, spicy and packed with local ingredients like avocado leaves, chocolate, cloves and a chilli pepper known as pasilla you can only find in the region. The signature sauce – like sriracha in LA or XO in Hong Kong – is mole, which I eat by the spoonful. Made with crushed nuts, sesame, bananas, garlic, cinnamon and chocolate, the result is a little smoky, a little spicy, a little sweet – and altogether addictive.
“Back in Mexico, my dad was a mezcal producer. But he moved here in 1993, when Mexico was going through a huge economic crisis. The crisis hit us hard,” shares Bricia Lopez, one of the restaurant’s co-owners.
Bricia’s father, Fernando, had family living in LA, so the move made sense. When he arrived, Fernando longed for Oaxacan cuisine but couldn’t find it anywhere, so he started selling traditional dishes door to door. After about a year in LA, he was successful enough to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant and move his family here, where they found the second largest population of Oaxacan people outside of Mexico and sought to cultivate a meeting place for the community.
“From the beginning, Guelaguetza was really popular with the Oaxacan community because the other types of Mexican food were nothing like what they were used to,” says Bricia. “When people dine here, we want them to feel they’re immersed in the culture – with the music, interiors, food and community.”
Elbowing through crowds for Brazilian churrasco
From Koreatown, we race west to the Original Farmers Market to get a feel for what’s arguably the city’s original foodie hotspot. This landmark was established in 1934, originally for farmers to sell their produce. It quickly morphed into a dining hall where immigrant families set up stalls – many of which are now run by fourth or fifth generations.
In the retro alfresco space, you can dine on Italian pasta at Buca di Beppo, snap up English toffees from Littlejohn’s or linger over churrasco – Brazilian grilled meats – at the acclaimed Pampas Grill. The owner of Pampas, Francisco Carvalho, emigrated from southeastern Brazil and wanted to share his mother’s recipes. Grilled on enormous spits, the medium-rare chunks of Brazilian beef are mostly unadulterated, aside from some rock salt, while the citrus-spritzed chicken arrives with a halo of garlic aroma.
“The Farmers Market has always been a rich area for food, eclectic shops and amazing stories of entrepreneurship,” says Scalia, who rattles off each vendor’s name and backstory with ease. “You can get something from just about every continent here.”
We don’t have time to linger so I make a mental note to come back. The clock’s ticking and we rush toward our next meal.
Zipping across town for Ethiopian
To really get a sense of the city, we’ll need to drive. Heading south from the Farmers Market, the buildings transform before my eyes while Uber driver Haigo launches into his own immigrant story. He fled Ethiopia after being imprisoned for fighting the communist regime in the ’70s, seeking asylum first in Europe before moving to California to study accounting in San Francisco. After three decades working as an accountant in LA, Haigo lost his job, and now drives for Uber while he finds his footing again.
It doesn’t seem like we have much in common, but we quickly bond over food. Haigo says there’s amazing Ethiopian cuisine just south of the market. We turn onto South Fairfax Avenue, in Central Los Angeles, and suddenly the shops feature a script I’ve never seen before. Haigo’s favourite restaurant – Messob – is straight ahead.
While Getahun Asfaw, the co-owner, introduces the menu, he fields my barrage of questions. “I moved here 22 years ago to join my brother who was already living here. It was my dream to move to the US, for freedom of speech, freedom of choice,” says Asfaw.
He says you won’t find a wink of fusion cuisine on his menu. It’s traditional and precise, featuring homestyle sharing platters packed with a rainbow of dal, curried potatoes, collard greens and tomato fit-fit (a bread and tomato mix) atop a base of spongy injera bread. “You use your hands to eat. If you use a fork, I’m gonna charge you an extra US$100,” he warns with a laugh.
Before heading off, Asfaw says we must try a traditional coffee ceremony to round out the experience. “Ethiopia invented coffee,” he says, glowing with pride. A woman appears to roast the beans tableside, filling the air with a warm, earthy aroma. She brews the smooth coffee in a dark-wood jebena – a coffee pot with a flute-like neck – and pours it into tiny cups that encourage slow, measured sips. I sip my brew, but have my eye on the clock: there’s five hours left in our 12-hour dining marathon.
Salivating over sharing platters in Tehrangeles
As we leave Little Ethiopia and wander back into the afternoon sun, Scalia tells me about the city’s Persian community: “You haven’t experienced LA’s multicultural cuisines until you’ve been to Tehrangeles. It’s just a few blocks from the University of California, Los Angeles’ campus.” Sold on the promise of kebabs and yoghurt dips, we rush off, leaving the mini African enclave behind, and 20 minutes later, we pull up in front of a chocolate-brown building on Fairfax Avenue, in the Westwood District, that’s dressed up with a garden of succulents and intricate latticework.
Founded by chef Hamid Mosavi more than 35 years ago, Shamshiri Grill is one of those restaurants where the décor takes a backseat so the food can shine. And shine it does. Originally from Iran, chef Mosavi moved to the US in 1976 when he was just 16 to pursue an education. He took a part-time job at his cousin’s restaurant before striking out on his own in 1984 with Shamshiri Grill.
By 1990, Mosavi had four locations across LA. “When I opened Westood Shamshiri in 1984, there was only one small Persian restaurant in the area,” says Mosavi. “Soon after Shamshiri, someone opened a Persian market next to me, then the carpet business began to open branches in Westwood, then an ice cream shop… a stream of Iranians started to appear around Westwood.”
To get a feel for Persian cuisine, we order a few sharing plates: lamb and chicken kebabs, hummus, taftoon (a Persian bread), shirazi salad (with chopped cucumber, tomato and parsley), mast-o-musir (a yoghurt dip with cucumber and dried mint, topped with walnuts and raisins) and black tea with a hint of cardamom. Everything tastes fresh and light, and is served with a warm family-style hospitality.
The more I peel back the layers of LA, the more I realise how much the city embraces diversity. “Immigrants are the backbone of our economy – the hotels, the restaurants, the farms… ” says Scalia. “Multiculturalism is a part of the fabric of Los Angeles.”
Cruising northeast to Thai town for scorching curries
For dinner, I have my heart set on Jitlada, which has been praised exhaustively by respected food writers like the late Jonathan Gold. The Thai restaurant is hidden away in an unassuming strip mall in East Hollywood’s Thai Town. Bright neon signs and a line out the door signal I’m in the right place.
Southern California has the largest population of Thais outside of Thailand, with more than 100,000 living here. As a result, there are many regional-specific styles of Thai cuisine to discover. Jitlada is an explosion of curios and memorabilia, from magazine clippings to retro stickers, clocks, vintage lamps and framed photos from Thailand. Opened in 2006 by the late chef Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee and his sister Jazz Singsanong – who emigrated in 1979 from the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, near the Malaysian border, to pursue a college education – the restaurant put Southern Thai food on the map in LA.
“The Thai community is a special case, because they weren’t fleeing from insurrections or rebellions,” shares Foss. “The earliest immigrants from Thailand were masses of students, who came to study. They loved it here, and many stayed and started businesses and restaurants.”
I skip familiar staples like pad thai in favour of the items on Jitlada’s submenu – the one dedicated to homestyle Southern specialities for those with adventurous palates. I try tamarind snapper head, beef tongue soup, catfish salad, fried morning glory and a palate-punching “jungle” curry that’s dotted with “dragon balls” – egg yolk-stuffed fishballs. The firecracker hot flavour of the curry, in particular, had my ears ringing after just one spoonful.
Winding down with boundary blurring tacos
With my mouth burning and tummy bursting, it seems implausible I can push through with one more stop… then I realise I haven’t had a single taco. How did I let this happen? There’s an hour to spare on the challenge, so we make a beeline for the Arts District –in the southern edge of Downtown LA – to the most headline-grabbing taco vendor around: Guerrilla Tacos.
Helmed by Alain Ducasse-trained Wesley Avila, a second-generation Mexican-American, Guerrilla Tacos started six years ago as a food truck with a US$167 investment. Cruising from one success to the next, he finally opened a brick-and-mortar location this summer.
At this new open-air spot, Avila brings together a world of influences: there’s Japanese signage on the wall, as well as char siu tacos and lamb kebabs on the menu. On the Beef Chile Colorado taco, you can add foie gras to the hearty combination of sliced hanger steak, a drizzle of chile de arbol sauce, pumpkin seeds and chives.
This is LA in a taco shell: a melting pot of cultures that celebrates diversity, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Over the past 25 years, LA has been leading the way in simultaneously being open to fusion foods and searching out more true expressions of traditional culture,” says Foss. “Food is a tool of communication, transcending language and tone of voice. Embracing someone’s food traditions is an acceptance of their culture.”
An at-a-glance look at Los Angeles’ top places to eat, visit and rest your head
Housed in the former United Artists Building in the Broadway Theater District, the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles features striking architecture, an industrial-chic décor and artsy atmosphere. 929 S Broadway; acehotel.com/losangeles
On the western edge of Downtown LA, The Mayfair opened this summer following an ambitious restoration project. Designed by LA-based Gulla Jónsdóttir Architecture & Design Studio, the Art Deco façade feels like it’s been imported from the 1920s. Don’t miss the cold brews and kombuchas on tap at Fairgrounds Coffee & Tea café, along with a new rooftop pool. 1256 W 7th St; mayfairla.com
This family-run Oaxacan establishment dishes up smoky, savoury flavours in dishes such as chiles rellenos (Oaxaca green chillies with chicken) and Tlayuda choriqueso (a tortilla topped with pork rind paste, Oaxacan cheese and chorizo). 3014 W Olympic Blvd; ilovemole.com
Founded in 1985 in the heart of Little Ethiopia, Messob offers an experiential tour through the East African nation. Almost every detail has been imported, from the chairs to the coffee cups, and the menu stays true to tradition. 1041 S Fairfax Ave; messob.com
Shamshiri Grill is one of the first Persian restaurants to open in the area now known as Tehrangeles. Signatures include yoghurt dips, homemade flatbreads and charcoal-grilled kebabs. 1712 Westwood Blvd; shamshiri.com
A Thai Town institution that serves up palate-scorching curries from Southern Thailand alongside more easy-to-digest staples. 5233 W Sunset Blvd; jitladala.com
Chef Wes Avila has gained a following for his unique version of Mexican-American cuisine – think gourmet tacos topped with everything from sweet potato to char siu and Baja cod. 2000 E 7th St; guerrillatacos.com
OUE Skyspace LA
To get your bearings, head up to the 69th floor of OUE Skyspace LA. Home to California’s tallest open-air observation terraces, the building is a hive of interactive artwork and activities, murals and a 13m-long glass Skyslide that zips daredevils around the outside of the building from the 70th to 69th floor. oue-skyspace.com
Photos by Marianna Jamadi
Fly with Hong Kong Airlines to Los Angeles for a culinary challenge! Click here