I made it to 45 U.S. cities this year — every corner of the country, every size of metropolis. And nowhere did I feel more energized, more astounded, more satisfied, and more excited to dive in than during the several trips I made to Los Angeles.
Sure, I ate well in the country's other biggest cities: I went on a fine-dining bender in the San Francisco Bay Area and admired how Chicago is looking at mainstay themes (French, steakhouses) from inventive angles. I noticed an Eater NY story yesterday that showed some of my colleagues felt it to be a banner year for new NYC restaurants, while to others, it seemed like a slump. I fell for Major Food Group newcomers Santina and Sadelle's but generally side with those who thought it sluggish. NYC seems to be in an incubation stage for its next wave of game-changing ideas.
Los Angeles just has it right now. The city is the current epicenter of freethinking and diversity in American cooking. I got off the plane on my most recent trip just a few weeks ago and went straight to Gjusta for the bonkers porchetta melt and exceptional falafel. The next two nights I had two compellingly different and brilliant tasting menus at Maude and Trois Mec. Breakfast at Sqirl made me happy straight down to my soul. Night + Market Song challenged me to stay with the aggressive Thai flavors until my palate came to crave them. I dug the weighty tacos and the cheeky beet torta at B.S. Taqueria. And that's just a handful of examples.
What has conspired to make Los Angeles such a hotbed of free expression and excellence?
So break it down, team Eater LA: Just what is going on in Southern California, exactly? What has conspired to make this place such a hotbed of free expression and excellence?
Farley Elliott, Eater LA senior editor: I couldn't agree more. You certainly win in the 'miles logged' department, but for my money and time, I don't think there's a more electric dining city anywhere in America, especially when you try to wrap your mind around the sheer breadth of cuisine possibilities that are available here.
Matthew Kang, Eater LA editor: I think it's fair to say that LA doesn't have a very long culinary heritage to bank on, or a particular constituency that was dictating how we were eating. Like in NYC, it was a lot of power dining, or the proverbial "big city" restaurant. Sure, Hollywood has had some say in how we've done restaurants, but those places were never about great food. So I think restaurateurs don't feel like they have to stick to a certain playbook. The only requirements are flavor and "interestingness."
Addison: Angelenos seem exceptionally receptive to untried ideas. Any thoughts about who or what cultivates such an opened minded dining community?
Kang: I do think it has a lot to do with the city's creative culture. People here are open to new ideas and expressions. We're ultimately an artist-driven town, making movies, music, art, etc. People don't shut you down for an idea, they want to know more about it. Everyone here is a dreamer, in a sense. So I think on the plate, that means chefs aren't going to hold back because they think Angelenos won't accept their ideas.
Elliott: That's a good point, Matt. LA cultivates creativity like few other cities, and has the real estate to still let oddball ideas shine.
Kang: I think the real estate matter is also pretty interesting. LA isn't tied down to subway tracks or certain neighborhoods. People will travel from anywhere for good food. I know people who travel regularly from Orange County or Santa Clarita in search of the better food LA has to offer. Everyone has cars, so that means good chefs can pick a cheaper spot and not have to fill their menu with predictable items to pay the rent.
Addison: Ha, I live in Atlanta where the restaurants tend to serve the same dishes over and over. Georgia's tax breaks for the movie industry is giving the city the nickname "Hollywood of the South" — I hope the artistic spirit eventually rubs off here. So everyone in Los Angeles just accepts the horrendous traffic to reach a great meal?
Elliott: I always say that traffic is our weather. It's what you talk about in line at the bank.
Kang: That's why a lot of restaurants don't fill up until well after 7:30p.m.!
Addison: That actually is interesting: I think a lot of East Coast restaurants tend to fill up on the early side. So it seems like this year especially, the restaurants that made a huge impact decidedly strayed from typical American flavors. Does this seem like a watershed year in LA for chefs embracing global cuisines — both cooking from their heritage or else embracing a cuisine that fascinates them?
Kang: I think it's more personal when chefs are drawing from their heritage. People can believe that there's heart and soul in the food that way. When they're churning out predictable dishes, what more can you really bring to the plate? Also, Angelenos just eat that way. One night it's Korean, another it's Japanese, another it's tacos/Mexican, another it's Thai or Salvadoran. The city is so diverse you get tired of eating pork chops and mashed potatoes.
Addison: It's always been all over the map in LA (literally and figuratively), but now it isn't just the finest cooks in the immigrant communities. It's trained chefs finding truer cuisines, more individual expressions of food — and find they have receptive audiences for them.
Kang: They have to present food that's more compelling than the immigrant communities'. If you can't make better dan dan noodles than you can find in San Gabriel Valley, don't even try. So the standards are high.
Elliott: I think that's one area where the city has grown by leaps and bounds in 2015. I just got back from Australia, and it was really heartening to see so much built-in cultural crossover in their cuisine. They've been doing Southeast Asian flavors for decades now, at all levels, and LA is now starting to compete in the same way, but with stuff that's even closer to home. We're leaning on our Thai heritage, our Mexican heritage, more.
Addison: Would you say there have been particular chefs/restaurateurs who have driven the movement toward leaning on heritage as a guiding business principle?
Kang: Roy Choi, Kris Yenbamroong, Sang Yoon (ish), Bryant Ng, Wes Avila, Carlos Salgado.
Elliott: Would also add Ray Garcia at Broken Spanish.
Addison: Being on the ground, do you think that there's enough strong talent in the city to keep the LA momentum growing?
Kang: The next year is going to be really tricky. There's a massive line cook shortage. The minimum wage is hitting $10 in two days, up from $8.75. The real-estate situation is starting to affect the fundamentals, so with higher key money and more outside investors coming in, the stakes are going to be higher. The PR industry is having a field day right now, but that's not necessarily good for diners, who have to finance these projects with their wallets.
Elliott: 2016 will be really, really big for Los Angeles, as the rest of the country takes notice and starts flooding the city with their own ideas: Slanted Door, Shake Shack, etc. But for everyone who's been here and is trying to continue to innovate, rising real estate prices and wage issues are going to make long-term success a much trickier proposition.
Addison: Is this why so many chefs in LA open tiny restaurants that they can man themselves? I'm thinking of Baroo, RiceBar, Guerrilla Tacos (to throw a truck in the mix)...
Elliott: Having a smaller footprint lets you control everything, really. And a lot of people aren't talking about the supply side of things. California absolutely controls the produce market world, and LA gets the best of it all. But with a squeeze on that system and more and more competition, there could be a dip in quality on the plate.
Kang: I think restaurants have to deal with even thinner margins and a more expensive workforce. LA's food has always, historically, been on the cheaper side because of our produce sourcing and labor (which was plentiful). You have to find a way to control labor costs before they crush a restaurant. The untold story is how many restaurants closed this year to make way for all the new concepts coming in. It's starting to feel like a zero-sum game.
Addison: So what should I be most excited about eating on my next trip to LA?
Kang: I think you have to have the finest examples of certain ethnic cuisines, and maybe their regional variants, to understand how good we have it. Go to Jun Won (traditional Korean, not regionally specific per se, but I'd say it's more of a coastal Korean restaurant, but outside of Seoul), Chengdu Taste (for arguably the best Sichuan food in the country), Carnitas El Momo (one of the best artisan carnitas vendors in LA, if not the country), Coni'Seafood (Nayarit-style seafood), Luv2Eat Thai (a strong counterpoint to Night + Market).
Addison: Chengdu Taste has been one conspicuous notch missing from my belt.
Elliott: I'm interested in seeing how big players like Otium and Cassia manage their space and their clientele, without losing what's on the plate.
Addison: Yes, certainly I have my sights set on Otium — the menu seems to synthesize all the global intrigue Angelenos embrace and put it in a fancier setting. We'll see how that flies. Looks like I have my early 2016 eating itinerary right here. In LA, one never runs out of new culinary horizons to glimpse.