An LA native’s recommendation on how to dine here when visiting.
As is the case with most big cities, the best way to experience Los Angeles is through your stomach. You can go on Instagram to see beautiful images of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood sign, or Urban Light at the LACMA and they’ll look even better on your phone than they would in real life. But when it comes to images of food, you’re often left in a state of wanting; presentation is important to be sure, but we really want to smell and taste these dishes, not just look at them.
Full disclosure — I’ve lived here all my life but I’m not going to pretend like I’ve tried everything that this culinary smorgasbord of a city has to offer, not even close. I hesitate to consider myself a foodie as well because, from a personal perspective, that word evokes images of wannabe-hipsters furiously thumbing through Yelp to find the freshest flavor of the week so that they can hurry over and wait in line for two hours for some fusion dish that will run them well over $20 a person and well short of dining satisfaction.
But here’s the thing about sharing information — as long as you know a little bit more than someone else, you can help that person learn something new and provide some insight that will prove to be useful, which is why I’m writing this. I’ve seen countless articles online about “The Best Restaurants in Los Angeles” and my usual reaction to these posts is something along the lines of, “This isn’t really going to help many people.” The best restaurants in LA — the best for who, a millionaire with all the time in the world? Also, do these publications have any vested interests in the restaurants they’re highlighting? I wonder about these things.
With that said, you can be sure that I am clear of any conflicting interests — no sponsors from restauranteurs here.
This guide is intended for a specific subset of people — self-supporting adults that are visiting Los Angeles for the weekend without much experience. This means you’re flying or driving into LA on Friday in time to make dinner and you’re leaving Sunday afternoon. You might be here to visit friends, attend a wedding, see your baseball team play at Dodger Stadium, or go to an Ariana Grande concert at Staples Center, but you’re here with around 44 hours or so to spare (6 PM on Friday to 2 PM on Sunday). You may have visited once or twice in the past, but you don’t quite yet have a firm lay of the land.
Another tidbit about myself — I am left-brained, which means that I need to understand the logic and process of things, so when I see nothing but right-brained articles telling people to eat here and there without explaining how these lists were devised, I’m left rather perplexed.
So before I walk you through a weekend LA dining experience, I’ll share with you the assumptions, guidelines, and general preferences I adopted to come up with my recommendations.
Assumption #1: You have time and room in your stomach for 4-5 good meals. This means you’ll be able to have Friday night dinner, three meals on Saturday, and one last meal on Sunday before you head home. It’s very possible that your reason for being an LA weekender will keep you from either Saturday lunch or dinner, so you can go ahead and skip one of these if necessary.
Assumption #2: You’re staying in the part of the Metropolitan LA area that most people come here for. This means you won’t be heading over to the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, San Gabriel Valley, or Orange County, because you simply don’t have the time. Most LA restaurant lists that I see will list a restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, then one in Orange County, which for the weekender is impractical. You don’t want to be clocking in more hours on the freeway than in restaurants, I’m sure.
Assumption #3: You don’t have any dietary restrictions. Weekenders are like mini-vacations, brief periods of time where diverging from your keto diet and intermittent fasting is acceptable. I am not here to poo-poo your choice of going vegan, but if you are, this is not the article for you. And if you’ve only eaten Kraft macaroni and cheese for the past fifteen years, then god help you.
Guideline #1: Extraneous wait times are to be avoided. That means you’re out, Howlin’ Ray’s. As delightfully crunchy, spicy, juicy, and exploding with flavor as your Nashville hot chicken may be, a weekender shouldn’t be spending an excess of two hours waiting for it. Lines and wait times are unavoidable in LA but dining without waiting periods that are ridiculous and bordering on levels of insanity is perfectly doable.
Guideline #2: No fine dining. You are already spending your hard-earned money to spend a weekend in this beautiful city, and you shouldn’t be burning a cavernous hole in your wallet to enjoy it. Mastro’s, Lawry’s, Spago, and other white tablecloth establishments with someone’s name on the marquee are all wonderful dining experiences, but great fine dining isn’t unique to Los Angeles, and I would rather have visitors leave with a better feel for what this city is at the core.
Guideline #3: No reservations (RIP Anthony Bourdain). Weekend getaways — and traveling, in general — are best when there’s room for improvisation. The opportunism that comes from that flying by the seat of your pants feeling is what an excursion away from your hometown is all about. You can plan weeks ahead and book a slot at Bestia or Majordomo, but who wants to be such a buttoned up killjoy? Live a little, goddammit.
All food recommendations are subjective, an acknowledgment that has led me to share with you what my favorite types of cuisines in Los Angeles are. This city’s greatest strength may very well be its diversity, and because it’s so diverse there are certain cuisines that I have yet to fully grasp and appreciate. With that said, these are some general must-eats based on my experience.
- Taco trucks
- Korean food
- Thai food
Some glaring omissions from this list include Japanese, Mediterranean, Persian, and Chinese food. Based on my experience, most of the best restaurants for these cuisines reside outside of the Metropolitan Los Angeles area of which you’ll be spending your time (I could be wrong on the Persian). Sadly, I have also yet to experience dining in Little Ethiopia on Fairfax, so please, I mean no offense by leaving them out, or any other group for that matter.
I also do not like providing the obvious, touristy choices like Pink’s Hot Dogs (wouldn’t recommend that anyway), In-N-Out Burger (love it, but you can get that in other places), or Philippe’s (go only if you’re on your way to a Dodgers game). I’m also not recommending completely esoteric, off-the-beaten-path establishments that only five people frequent, though I’d probably veer on that side of the spectrum over its counterpart. It’ll be somewhere in between.
The restaurant-by-restaurant guide that I am about to share with you shouldn’t be taken as gospel — you can mix and swap out restaurants for other similar types according to location and preference — but I’m confident that following this guide will leave your stomach satisfied.
A Weekend LA Dining Experience
It’s late Friday afternoon, and you’ve made your way to the city. After navigating through the traffic congested 10 Freeway, you arrive at your hotel or AirBnb somewhere in the middle of the action. Whether you flew in or drove, it doesn’t matter — Uber and Lyft are the preferred modes of transportation. After all, drinks will be in short and plentiful order, and we don’t need another lunatic flying down Wilshire Boulevard.
When it comes to some of the best culinary marriages, you think about peanut butter and jelly, bacon and eggs, and steak and potatoes; I would also put Friday Night and Koreatown on that list. You’re bound to find multiple KBBQ restaurants full of patrons shoveling chadolbaegi (beef brisket) and samgyeopsal (pork belly) down their throats, but what was once the only act in town is now a gateway into more adventurous territory.
Your first meal will be at Ham Ji Park because you like pork, you like spice, and the two of them put together also belong on that list of best marriages. The daeji galbi (pork spare ribs) and the gamja tang (pork neck stew) are the items to order — pork so tender that it falls off the bone and marinated to create an explosion of sweet chili flavor in your mouth. You won’t even mind that your hands will be covered in sauce because the taste is worth it. A party of four would be quite satisfied with those two dishes alone.
Some alternatives in Koreatown include: Kobawoo House for their daeji kimchi bokkum (spicy pork with tofu) and bindae ttuk (Korean mungbean pancake); or Yu Chun for some mul naengmyun (Korean cold noodles; this is a dry establishment — you’ve been warned).
Saturday morning comes around. I for one am not a huge proponent of eating out for breakfast so I won’t be telling you to go out to the Original Pantry Cafe downtown — plus, this place breaks Guideline #1. And besides, you might be a little hungover from a Koreatown Friday night of drinking beer and soju.
But, if you do like breakfast, or if you want something interesting, or if your group can’t really decide on anything, then Uncle John’s Cafe in downtown LA is a perfect choice. Pay no mind to the ambiance or the bizarre amalgamation of American, Chinese, and Cajun dishes on its menu, this place is worth a try. The spicy pork chops are the star entree at this restaurant (you can gather that I am partial to pork). I’ve also been told that the steak and eggs are quite good.
A lunch alternative that I would offer is Dave’s Hot Chicken in East Hollywood. Think Howlin’ Ray’s with a much faster-moving line. Their spiciest option may not be as atomic as Ray’s, but no one really enjoys eating that anyway.
For dinner, you’ll head over to Jitlada in East Hollywood’s Thai Town. The menu will be intimidating as is the case with most Thai menus that list over 100 items to choose from. The standard Thai dishes won’t disappoint — pad thai, pad see ew, panang curry, tom yum, and mango sticky rice. I would recommend the crying tiger (marinated grilled beef), kua kling (spicy chicken wings — prepare for some heat), and toong song noodles (egg noodles with barbecue pork) for a taste of Thai cuisine that the average American isn’t used to.
Of course, a trip to Los Angeles would be incomplete without visiting one of the many delicious taco trucks parked throughout the city. There’s really never a bad time for tacos, but as far as I’m concerned, the best time to have some is during the post-2 AM period after the bars have closed. It’s as if the culinary gods have dispatched their food angels down to LA, letting us know that they have our backs in the form of corn tortillas, marinated meat, onions, cheese, and salsa, saving us from the despair of alcohol overconsumption without the support of greasy foods. I would encourage you to accept these olive branch offerings.
There are several articles online about LA’s taco trucks, but a few that I would recommend are Taco Zone in Echo Park, Leo’s Tacos in East Hollywood, and El Chato in Mid-Wilshire.
With one meal remaining on Sunday before heading homeward, you’ll want to try one of the many great burgers LA has to offer. Although In-N-Out Burger holds a special place in every LA native’s heart, there are several independent establishments that make a damn good burger.
For my money, the best place to go is Burgers Never Say Die in Silverlake. What was once a backyard operation from its founder has become a mainstay in a competitive burger market. It’s a bit pricey for the size, but you’ll definitely know where your money is going. The griddle-top smashburger method by which the patties are cooked adds a crunchy textural element to the meat that enhances the overall taste. There’s a giant sign painted on the front counter: ALWAYS ORDER TWO. Heed the warning, or else live in regret.
If you spend your weekend by following this tour of restaurants, your stomach will be full of meat and contentment, and your heart may grow a little softer towards a city that’s stereotypically characterized by bad traffic, superficiality, and pipedream chasers. Of course, I’ve failed to mention about 99% of LA’s great restaurants, but you’ll be happy with what I’ve offered here, and your curiosity for what else this city has to offer your taste buds will be piqued all the more. Cheers.