by Ben Adler
I hate to admit it — I mean I am really loathe to — but the food in Los Angeles is pretty good. On my first night there my friends and I went to a place named Barrio Fiesta that I assumed would be Mexican, but turned out to be Filipino. Apparently LA is so Latino that even the Asian places have stereotypically Spanish names. But the food was not typical of anything you can get on the East Coast. I love Filipino food (if you’ve never tried it imagine a heartier, more land-oriented cousin to Thai) and I never find it anywhere back home because D.C. is a parochial culinary backwater where you cannot find most ethnic cuisines. The restaurant was cheap, the service was friendly and the food was scrumptious. Thick, sweet but not cloying, pork skewers, a rich beef stew and an everything but the kitchen sink noodle dish were enough for the three of us.
On my second night in LA we went to a Mexican restaurant in Pasadena that is part of a small, ancient local chain — I’m blanking on the name. The guacamole made fresh at our table was tangy and spiced perfectly. My carnitas were simultaneously crisp and chewy, and, as you might expect, the portions were gargantuan and the prices modest.
My third dinner in LA was at an Iranian restaurant. Iranian food is, much like Filipino, a touch too far off the beaten path for the District of Columbia. But in LA Iranian food is everywhere and this place served the usual good Iranian fare: a perfectly balanced sharp and sweet eggplant and vegetable dish and a rice with cherries and boiled chicken. But the real star of my meal was the chicken in pomegranate and walnut sauce. It’s called Fessenjoon and you must go try some.
My last dinner in LA was at a trendy American bistro, which was exactly what you would expect: bitter mixed greens, an extensive beer list, decent food, very good dessert. I also had a good lunch at an Argentinian restaurant. LA, unlike DC, is the kind of place where you just might eat Argentinian food on a Sunday afternoon.
One innovation in LA that I really wish they would import back East is the Donut shop. There are practically zero independent donut shops in DC, and very few left in NY. But in LA they are everywhere. And many are open all night! And they make the donuts right there! And they are good. The one I had was still warm. The powdered sugar melted right off of it. It was thick — none of that Crispy Creme airy sugarball quality. It was a real snack. I’d kill for one right now.
The one big culinary disappointment of my trip was my visit to In and Out Burger. LA people talk constantly about their great burgers and in In and Out is one of the examples. I am not impressed. If there is one thing D.C. actually does well, it’s cheap burgers, and I’d take ours over this crap any day.
As you can see from the picture, it’s a pretty run of the mill burger. The meat is not especially thick or juicy. The sauce tastes like McDonald’s special sauce. Ollie’s trolley, in DC, has a far superior sauce, with seasoned fries to match. The fries were too small (I mean themselves, not the portion size), not salty enough, and neither tasty in their scrawniness, a la McDonalds, or chewy like Nathan’s. In and Out has hardly any diversity of options.
Compare that to the juicy burgers and plethora of toppings at Five Guys, and it’s no contest. Granted, In and Out is very cheap, and if you are comparing to McDonald’s or Burger King, you could note that In and Out has higher quality meat and toppings. But I don’t eat at McDonald’s or Burger King and I won’t eat at In and Out again as long as I live.